An empathetic report on the longest wrongful incarceration in the history of the United States to conclude with exoneration.
In his debut book, an expansion of his popular Cleveland Scene feature, Washington Post journalist Swenson weaves together the dramatic details of a 1975 incident in Cleveland in which three black men were falsely accused and convicted of the murder of Harry Franks, a white man, outside of a convenience store. The author begins with a sweeping history of Cleveland, especially the 1960s and ’70s, when increasing racial tensions and unrest haunted the region alongside rampant discrimination, urban infrastructural decay, and the crack epidemic that ushered in and decimated the city in the 1980s. Swenson introduces us to Kwame Ajamu, Wiley Bridgeman, and Rickey Jackson, boys for whom Cleveland had become their playground and true home. The author’s portraits of the boys are carefully and lucidly drawn, as he captures their maturation into young men who were in the wrong place when Franks was fatally shot. At their trial, the prime witness, a 12-year-old neighborhood boy named Edward Vernon, testified against them, and all were charged with the murder despite a glaring absence of physical evidentiary support. Swenson also delivers a vital portrait of Vernon’s adult life, plagued by drug abuse and unhappiness, and of his shocking retraction just as Bridgeman was paroled after 27 years in prison. Compelling and heartfelt, the author’s cinematic chronicle moves swiftly through these events, and embedded in this tale of gross criminal injustice is the frustrating history and scarred legacy of Cleveland, a city harboring a “deepening woe” and mired in political corruption, racial conflict, and unbridled crime. Through in-person interviews and extensive, diligent research, Swenson brings this travesty of justice into impressive, necessary focus.
In this sharply written, emotionally resonant rendering, the author makes crystal-clear the heartbreaking realities of wrongful imprisonment, race, and the many flaws of the American criminal justice system.