2021-06-28 19:29:12 UTC
Wiley Bridgeman, who served nearly 4 decades in prison for Cleveland murder he didn’t commit, has died
Updated 3:18 PM; Today 12:53 PM
By Cory Shaffer, cleveland.com
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Wiley Bridgeman, who spent more than half his life in prison for a murder that he didn’t commit, died Sunday due to complications from COPD, his brother told cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer.
The 66-year-old Bridgeman spent more than 37 years in prison before his release in 2014. He died in a hospital bed next to his little brother, Kwame Ajamu, who was also convicted and exonerated alongside Bridgeman and their friend, Rickey Jackson.
“He still managed to be a very encouraging, very intellectual, very bright star,” Ajamu, 63, said in a phone interview Monday. “They did not put his fire out, although they dimmed a lot of light.”
Ajamu fought back tears as he remembered his brother.
“He was my very first friend in this entire world,” he said.
Bridgeman, Ajamu and Jackson were 20, 17 and 18, respectively, when a jury, at the urging of prosecutors, wrongfully convicted them of the 1975 murder of Cleveland businessman Harold Franks, who died in a shooting outside a storefront south of University Circle. They were sentenced to death and spent two years on death row before the U.S. Supreme Court held that the way Ohio administered the death penalty at the time was unconstitutional.
Bridgeman and Jackson were released in 2014 with the help of the Ohio Innocence Project after a critical witness in the trial, who was 12 years old at the time, recanted his testimony. Eddie Vernon testified in 2014 that Cleveland police detectives pressured him to lie on the witness stand and identify the trio as Franks’ killers.
After his release, the city of Cleveland agreed to pay the three men a combined $18 million to settle a lawsuit they filed in U.S. District Court.
Bridgeman served in the National Guard and aspired to go to law school before his arrest and conviction, his attorneys said in a Monday news release.
Ajamu said Bridgeman was his hero, who in typical big-brother fashion taught Ajamu how to walk and talk. He recalled being children in the early 1960s when the Hanna Barbera cartoon TV show “Wally Gator” aired. Ajamu called his big brother “Wiley Gator,” and, as Bridgeman chased him around the house, Ajamu would holler out, “see you later, Wiley Gator.”
Bridgeman eventually realized that giving his little brother a dose of big-brother justice wasn’t going to stop it, Ajamu said.
“He started saying, ‘after a while, crocodile,’” Ajamu said. “That was my man.”
Bridgeman lived a life of “great difficulty and displeasure” that started when the two were kids in Catholic school. Nuns tried to correct Bridgeman’s left-handedness by slapping a ruler to his hand, Ajamu said.
Bridgeman began to show signs of mental illness around 1977 after his original conviction was overturned, and he was convicted and sentenced to death a second time. Bridgeman, who had been exchanging letters -with Ajamu since they landed on death row, began to threaten violence against himself and his brother in the letters after the second death sentence, Ajamu said. Prison officials began medicating him and giving him more medication to treat the side effects, Ajamu said.
When prison doctors found a mass in his lung that turned out to be smoking-induced COPD, Ajamu said Bridgeman didn’t believe them or trust them to give him more medication.
“He never had a fair shake with any authority figure that made him feel comfortable,” Ajamu said. “It’s just so sad because this guy was brilliant.”
Ajamu said Bridgeman continued to show flashes of brilliance and struggle with his mental health after his release from prison.
Bridgeman, in April 2018, was arrested and charged with aggravated vehicular homicide in a fatal hit-and-run crash of a construction worker in University Heights, according to court records. Bridgeman pleaded not guilty, and his case was still pending at the time of his death.
Ajamu, who was released on parole in 2003 while Bridgeman and Jackson remained locked up, said he learned his brother and friend were getting released as he replaced the brakes on his car. Jackson called him and told him he had just got out of prison and that if he hurried, he might be able to catch Bridgeman coming out of the Justice Center.
“I almost knocked the car off the jack,” he said.
He said he got the car back together and went downtown just as Bridgeman walked out of the courthouse. A photographer snapped a photo of Ajamu grabbing his brother’s snow-white beard.
“Went they convicted us, I was 17, and he was 20. He didn’t have a beard, especially a white one,” Ajamu said, beginning to cry. “I was amazed at how time had robbed us.”
Ajamu said that Bridgeman lived on a 4-acre property in Summit County that resembled the Ponderosa Ranch in the old TV show “Bonanza.” It’s full of flowers and wildlife that Ajamu helped keep Bridgeman mentally healthy, he said. Bridgeman kept writing in his final years, and Ajamu said he wants to publish a book of his brother’s work.
Ajamu said he, his wife and his niece are pretty much the only family Bridgeman had left. Most of the rest of their family died while they were in prison. Bridgeman was hospitalized last week, needing 100 percent oxygen to breathe, Ajamu said. Bridgeman took Ajamu’s wife and niece by the hand and told them that everything would be alright, Ajamu said.
“I’m quite certain of the fact that when he left here, he was not afraid at all,” Ajamu said.
Ajamu said he was at home in Richmond Heights Sunday when he got the call that his brother didn’t have much time left. He raced to the hospital and stayed long after Bridgeman died.
“I had witnessed the suffering and subjugation that my brother underwent when he was alone. I swore that if I could get him out of prison, I would never leave him alone again,” Ajamu said. “And so, I stayed with him until I was sure he was no more.”