Defense lawyers know all too well the gut wrenching fear of representing a client they believe is innocent.
We fight zealously for all of our clients and see acquittals in many cases where the state could not prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. But, it is those clients who we believe are truly innocent that keep us up at night, struggling with the reality that the slightest misstep could lead to disaster. This is why we work hard and serve passionately, not so the guilty can go free, but so that an innocent is not mistakenly swallowed up by the voracious criminal justice system.
Recently, the nation’s attention was distracted, if only for a moment, about two cases involving innocent men who spent nearly four decades in prison for crimes they did not commit. Both cases involved serious police misconduct.
Cuyahoga County, Ohio, businessman Henry Franks was murdered on the afternoon of May 19, 1975. Cleveland homicide detectives had little evidence to go on. In far too many cases like this, the police will fabricate evidence to give prosecutors a chance at conviction—some with the knowledge, even the cooperation, of the prosecutors.
And that’s what homicide detectives did in the Franks murder case. They arrested two brothers and a third man for the crime: Wiley and Ronnie Bridgeman and Ricky Jackson. The Bridgeman brothers were, respectively, 21 and 18 years of age in 1975. Ricky Jackson was also 18 years old.
Detectives working the case had one witness – a 13-year-old boy named Eddie Vernon. They coerced the kid into identifying the three men arrested for the Franks murder. All three were convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. Their death sentences were commuted to life in prison following a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the death penalty. Ronnie Bridgeman, now known as Kwame Ajamu, was freed from prison in 2003.
In 2013, while in a hospital, Vernon consulted with a minister. He recanted his testimony against the three men. He said his conscience could no longer carry the weight of the wrong he had done to the three innocent men. He said everything he testified to about the three men was “all lies” induced by police coercion. The detectives forced him to frame the trio.
Based on Vernon’s recanted testimony, a state district court judge recently granted a motion, without objection from state prosecutors, to vacate the convictions of Wiley Bridgeman and Ricky Jackson and ordered the two men set free, after 39 years in prison. This would be the longest known time served by an wrongfully convicted individual. Wiley was greeted by his brother upon his release. The exoneration of the three men was brought about by an investigation and the representation of the Ohio Innocence Project.
Nearly 2400 miles away, Michael Ray Hanline will walk out of a California prison after having his 1980 conviction and life sentence set aside for the 1978 murder of a Ventura County resident J.T. McGarry. The California Innocence Project recently had DNA evidence found at the crime scene re-tested under new technology. The new test revealed that the DNA recovered did not match Hanline or the accomplice convicted with him.
The Innocence Project also uncovered police reports that cast doubt on the testimony of the state’s chief witness, Hanline’s former girlfriend. The girlfriend was granted immunity in exchange for her testimony against Hanline. The reports were not disclosed to Hanline at the time of his trial because the police wanted to protect the identity of a confidential informant.
While state prosecutors have not agreed to a finding that Hanline is “factually innocent,” they have filed court documents revealing the results of their own re-investigation into the case. The new investigation uncovered evidence that other individuals had both the motive and means to kill McGarry, and that some witnesses had been threatened and discouraged from cooperating with prosecutors. Prosecutors now concede the documents, especially the police reports, should have been disclosed to Hanline’s defense before trial.
When released, Hanline, now 68, will become the longest serving wrongfully convicted person in California history according to the Innocence Project and the California Wrongful Convictions Project at the UC Berkeley School of Law. He has now been incarcerated for 36 years.
Breaking both the national record and the California state record for longest known incarcerations following a wrongful conviction are hardly milestones for which any of us who worked in the criminal justice system should be proud. It is incumbent upon us all, defense lawyers, prosecutors and judges to do all in our power to prevent future miscarriages of justice.