When Ricky Jackson was thrown into the shadowy corners of death row, Gerald Ford was president of the United States, the Vietnam conflict was drawing to a close and modern-day computers and cellphones were merely dreams in the minds of scientists.
Thirty-nine years later, Jackson was exonerated in 2014, becoming the longest serving wrongfully convicted man in the United States. On Monday, Feb. 23 in the LSC Conference Room, the John Carroll University community hosted “Freedom and Forgiveness.” Jackson and University of Cincinnati Law Professor and director for the Ohio Innocence Project, Mark Godsey were the guests of honor.
Megan Wilson-Reitz, Honors Program assistant and adjunct professor in the department of theology and religious studies, kicked off the presentation by introducing Godsey. Godsey was a key player in exonerating Jackson through the Ohio Innocence Project. Godsey explained that Jackson did not have a set speech prepared. Instead, he’d ask Jackson a series of questions in the hopes of making the presentation more conversational.
The crime falsely attributed to Jackson happened in Cleveland, Ohio, when a man came to collect money orders in a local convenient store. The man was carrying a large sum of money. Another man attacked him, allegedly for the money. The attacker threw acid at the man and shot him. The victim died.
After the incident, there was very little evidence. However, law enforcement found a 12-year-old boy named Edward Vernon, who was coincidentally the Jackson family’s paperboy. According to Jackson, Vernon was a young boy who craved love and attention from his family and did not receive it. Consequently, he acted in ways that would give him the attention.
At the time of the trial, Vernon knew that he did not actually witness the murder, but was pressured and threatened by the police with the imprisonment of his parents if he did not comply with a confession. Due to the coercion, Vernon lied, confessing he saw 17-year-old Jackson commit the murder. Jackson and two of his friends were sentenced to death by electric chair. After his sentence, Jackson wrote his story, collected evidence proving his innocence and sent it to the Ohio Innocence Project, a foundation run out of the University of Cincinnati Law School. Since his case eventually went through the appeals process, Jackson was offered a reduced sentence if he pleaded the lesser charge of manslaughter.
After providing the backstory, Godsey asked Jackson what was going through his head when he was given this choice to walk or maintain his innocence and gamble with his freedom.
“After 39 years, you want out so bad,” Jackson explained. “That offer gave me the opportunity to be a free man. As badly as I wanted to be free, I knew that in the end, all I had left to hold onto was my innocence. I decided that I wasn’t going to give in. If my innocence was all I had going to the grave, I could live with that decision.
“I am not capable of taking the life of another human being, that is who I am, even if it meant life in prison,” Jackson concluded.
A major theme Jackson reiterated was the importance of forgiveness – especially when it came to Vernon, the man who cost Jackson 39 years of his life.
“The last time I saw Edward Vernon was in ‘75 in the courtroom and [he] was accusing me of murder,” said Jackson. “He was a 13-year-old child, man.”
Jackson explained the drastically different emotions he felt when he saw Vernon again.
“After I saw him on the witness stand as a middle-aged man, my perception changed of him,” Jackson said. “I always pictured him living his life, and he didn’t have a kind of life at all. He had a troubled, burdensome life.
“When he got on the stand and I heard the truth for the first time, all the hate and animosity and all the negative and bad feelings melted away,” Jackson continued. “I saw the hurt and pain and turmoil he had gone through on his face. I resolved in my heart that I would forgive him.
“After the trial, we met at his church. At the time I was apprehensive,” Jackson continued. “All of those feelings pop back right up. When I looked into his eyes again and hugged him, that was the beginning of my life. Although I had scars, I forgave Edward, I said I finally got it, I understand him.”
Jackson also discussed the harsh conditions he faced while in prison.
“If you’ve ever been to a kennel, that’s what it’s like. You never went outside. If you were fortunate, you had a window,” Jackson said. “Sometimes we would fake sick to get sunshine. I went in at 17. Murder and rape was common. I had to survive and met some good people to help me focus and keep me on track. My mental health and my relationship with my family suffered,” Jackson continued.
During his hardships, Jackson turned to the academic world for comfort. “Books were how I escaped mentally in prison more than anything. When I was at my worst times, I got a good book and got lost in it. That was my main source of escape.”
Despite his circumstance, Jackson chose to look on the bright side of things – especially when it came to his newfound freedom.
“When I first got out, I couldn’t sleep for four days, there was so much stimuli,” said Jackson. “The fact that I could open my front door and look out at the stars and listen to the wind blowing through trees. To me, that was the best thing about being free. I walked and walked and walked at night, because I could.”