“The State concedes the obvious.”
Those words, from the lips of then-Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty, are flimsy gauze. They are the admission of a miscarriage of justice: the imprisoning, sentencing, placing on death row, and finally the exoneration of Wiley Bridgeman, Kwame Ajamu, and Rickey Jackson. The three men were accused of a robbery-homicide in 1975 in Cleveland and excised from society by the testimony of a 12-year-old boy.
Kyle Swenson traces their story in Good Kids, Bad City: A Story of Race and Wrongful Conviction in America. The boy’s testimony—the boy’s lies—put all three men away for decades, the beginning of which they spent in fear of the electric chair. After the boy’s eventual recantation almost four decades later and the revelation of police coercion, the men were released.
Unable to escape a brutalizing series of systems first built when white people decided they were superior, the wrongfully accused are the most easily sympathized with victims of the American justice system. Because if it happened to them, then it could happen to anyone but for the Grace of God…
But God has nothing to do with it! Race is God in America, and the system which allowed a 12-year-old boy and law enforcement to derail innocent lives is just as wrong when it punishes those committing crimes out of necessity or trauma.
Nothing in the urban landscape of American demographics was unintentional. Cities were not segregated by accident; black neighborhoods were not economically blighted by some virtue of their being black. Redlining and discrimination forced people of color into neighborhoods whites found acceptable. As cities were designed to disenfranchise and destroy, so were the other systems of a “just” society: healthcare, education, the rule of law—interminable rights codified in religions and government charters.
The innocently imprisoned are recognizable victims of America, but they’re far from the only ones. Across the country—a prison country—America’s own are condemned, a great many from birth, to death. Death by veins and wires, death by isolation, death by dehumanization, death by despair. That we have so thoroughly, so purposefully, so viciously ground so many into the bone dust from which our cities rise is a grievous crime. To think that even one innocent person could be among them—could be jailed, tortured, terrified, and killed by the machinations of cowards—should be too much to bear.
The system is perverted, and its original crime is the institutionalized suppression of people of color and anyone else not aligned with the system’s architects. Wiley Bridgeman, Kwame Ajamu, and Rickey Jackson are refugees of a slow genocide.
But their exoneration is not enough; all the innocently imprisoned together are not enough. The reckoning of the justice system and our place in how it was built must be complete. No aspect should escape review, no gross actor escape punishment.
What has been done to the innocently accused—and to those who never had a chance since birth—can never be forgiven. But it can be halted. Names to numbers! People from prisoners! Let the system take human form; let its blood flow from between the bars and into the streets. Let it cake hands and make indelible the sins wrought upon our very own, to be worn away only by the rending of their bars.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayist and book/art critic based in Chicago. A former book critic for The Myrtle Beach Sun News, he is a contributing reporter to A Beautiful Perspective and has been seen in The Atlantic, Hazlitt, Jezebel, Chicago, Sports Illustrated, VICE Sports, Creators, Sports on Earth and New American Paintings, among numerous other publications. You can find him on Twitter or at his website.