Ricky Jackson, America’s Longest-Serving Wrongfully Convicted Prisoner, Faces Many Decisions, Innocence, Freedom, and Lost Bitterness

© Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images Ricky Jackson stands for a portrait in his apartment on March 1, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. Jackson, America's longest-serving wrongfully convicted prisoner, served 39 years and was released through the help of the Ohio Innocence Project.
© Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
Ricky Jackson stands for a portrait in his apartment on March 1, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. Jackson, America’s longest-serving wrongfully convicted prisoner, served 39 years and was released through the help of the Ohio Innocence Project.

Three months and six days after he walked out of prison, Ricky Jackson has a decision to make. 

The past few months have been full of decisions. Where to live? What kind of car to buy? When to get up? Who to see? How to dress? Every time he turns around another set of choices is staring back at him. Mr. Jackson is 58 years old – almost retirement age – but these decisions are as new to him as they would be to a teenager. For the past 39 years, the particulars of his life have been dictated by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. Now, on the other side of the fence, the possibilities in a free life are overwhelming.

Not that every decision is major. Now, for instance, he’s sitting with friends in a Hungarian restaurant near his new apartment in a squat row of brick buildings in East Cleveland. He holds a menu that he’s been studying for a while. He’s leaning toward the pan-seared chicken until his friend urges him to try something unfamiliar – the chicken paprikash.

A waitress walks over.

If Jackson is preoccupied, he can be forgiven. He’s had a lot on his mind since he left prison. He’s been thinking about what to do with the remainder of his life. About what to make of the lie that landed him on death row at age 18, making him the longest-serving wrongfully convicted person in American history. It’s a lie that has tested the limits of human forgiveness and resilience. A lie that forced him to not let his circumstances, however tragic, define who he is.

It’s a lot for one man to process, but Jackson is trying to stay patient, making each decision on his own terms.

“Do you know what you want?” the waitress asks him.

He looks up and his weathered smile and arched eyebrows etch his face with the confidence of a man who has endured more than most.

“No,” he says. “I’m going to need more time.”

•••

Time has been a capricious currency for Jackson. From where he sits now, it’s just a 12-minute drive to the street corner that marked an abrupt ricochet in the trajectory of his life. It’s not much to look at today – just a bus stop, a parking lot, and a crumbling Roman Catholic church at the corner of Petrarca Road and Stokes Blvd.

But 40 years ago it was home to the Fairmount Cut-Rate, a cramped corner store that sold milk, beer, chips, and cigarettes to the residents of a small neighborhood abutting the train tracks on Cleveland’s tattered eastern edge. The store belonged to Robert and Anna Robinson, a friendly couple who let their neighbors buy on credit when they didn’t have money.

The store also sold money orders, and every week a money order agent would come to collect the payments and settle the accounts. In 1975, that agent was Harry Franks, a big man with a kind face and a long chin. Franks traveled the same circuit every Monday, collecting receipts from 11 different shops. Fairmount Cut-Rate was his final stop.

On May 19, 1975, he arrived at the store after 3 p.m. with a leather valise containing blank money order notebooks and $429 in cash from his previous stop. It was a stuffy afternoon in East Cleveland. He walked in and greeted Mrs. Robinson – she remembered him as a quiet, courteous man – and positioned himself at a counter to complete his paperwork. A small air conditioner above the door rumbled some relief from the heat.

Franks finished his business and left the store. After he stepped outside, Robinson thought she heard a groan. A liquid splashed against the window. She walked to the door and saw Franks on the ground. A man was hitting him on the head with a pipe, trying to tear the bag from his hands. He wouldn’t let go. Another man pressed a .38-caliber revolver into Franks’s torso. The two shots sounded like fireworks.

Instinctively, Robinson rapped on the window.

“What’s going on?” she shouted.

The gunman fired through the door, shooting her in the neck.

By 8 the next morning, Franks would be on the Cuyahoga County coroner’s table. A pathologist would determine that he had been splashed with battery acid, burning his face and blinding his left eye. He’d been shot through the heart and liver. His grieving widow would wonder why he didn’t let go of his bag. He’d been mugged before and had always said it was foolish to resist.

But for now Franks was sprawled on the pavement, dying. Inside the store, Robinson was also on the floor. A dark pool of blood spilled around her head and under a milk crate.

People gathered outside. Someone dialed 911. The police arrived and rushed Robinson to the hospital, where an emergency surgery saved her life. Before someone could find a sheet, an officer took off his coat and put it over Franks’s face.

The cops cordoned off the scene and canvassed the crowd. Someone had seen the getaway car, a green Buick. Patrolman Robert Hassel approached a group of rowdy boys and asked if they had seen anything. They were joking and irreverent, and he almost passed them by. But then one of them spoke.

“Yes,” said a boy in glasses.

He said he’d seen it on his way home from school. He was a witness.

Mr. Hassel took his name, address, and phone number. And that quickly, a lie was set in motion that would take most of a lifetime to undo.

•••

It’s impossible to say for certain what pushed Eddie Vernon to step forward that day. He was 12 years old, a well-mannered seventh-grader at Audubon Middle School. He was an average student – he did better in math than in English – and when he wasn’t delivering newspapers, he was playing football or baseball in the streets behind the Fairmount Cut-Rate.

Maybe he was seeking attention from an authority figure who would otherwise dismiss a poor black kid from a forgotten neighborhood. Maybe it was the impulse of an overactive imagination. Or just a loose word that snowballed out of control.

Whatever the reason, when detectives returned the next day, they came looking for Vernon. They met him at the Robinsons’ house, so the neighborhood wouldn’t know he was cooperating with the police. Mr. Robinson was also eager to find out who had killed Franks and shot his wife. He offered Vernon $50 to tell the police what he knew. It was a lot of money for Vernon – more than $200 today.

Detective Eugene Terpay, the lead investigator in the case, knew the neighborhood frowned on snitching. So he cultivated a relationship with the boy. He picked him up in an unmarked car, bought him burgers, and sped down the freeway with the sirens wailing. For a young kid like Vernon, it was thrilling.

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Source: Christian Science Monitor | Jacob Baynham

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