What does it feel like if you’re innocent on death row?
Ricky Jackson should know the answer: he was released in November while under a sentence of life imprisonment without parole, but his incarceration began on Ohio’s death row. He and his brother, Wiley Bridgeman, spent nearly 40 years in prison for a murder that they did not commit. Along with a third brother, Ronnie Bridgeman, who was released in 2003, they were convicted on the false testimony of a 12–year-old child, Eddie Vernon, who did not see the crime, but was prompted by police detectives to give key information about it. This witness has now testified truthfully, resulting in the exoneration of Ricky Jackson and Ronnie Bridgeman. Mr Jackson has publicly forgiven Mr Vernon, the former child witness.
Last month Mr Jackson was overcome with emotion while trying to describe what he had been through:
“I could halfway accept my punishment if I was guilty, but… excuse me… ”
He was unable to finish speaking.
Jeffrey Wogenstahl also claims to be an innocent man who should not be on death row. Soon after he was given his execution date he wrote this:
“My ‘fight’ has been fought for the past 20 years. I have nothing left inside me and it is simply time for me to let go. I don’t expect you could understand the fight I did go through, filing brief after brief in every court I entered and just KNOWING that this would be the court to acknowledge the truth and grant me a new trial.”
In order to survive, Jeff tries not to dwell on those feelings, but they can resurface at unexpected times. Earlier this month he rescued a stray cat that was too badly injured to be saved. As he coaxed it into a box, to be removed by the prison authorities to its inevitable fate, Jeff was overcome with sadness. He identified only too well with that cat which trusted him, as he had trusted the justice system: he felt that he was betraying the animal, as justice had betrayed him. The sadness stayed with him for many days.
As another prisoner on Ohio’s death row, Anthony Aponovitch, is released for a new trial, we should ask how many other innocent people are suffering on death row, knowing that the system they trusted has betrayed them.
And we hope that it will not be long before Jeff’s voice, too, is heard.