Imagine going about your day-to-day business when suddenly your life is snatched from beneath you, robbed by a person you barely knew. While to most people, it seems like their worst nightmare, to one man it was a grim reality. The case study of Ricky Jackson is an odd and infuriating case and will be explored in depth in this essay. Ricky Jackson was ensnared by the common traps of cognitive reasoning, indicted for life for a crime he never committed. Heuristics, false truths, the confirmation theory, and the threshold effect led to the longest wrongful indictment in the history of the United States.
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To start our philosophical analysis of the situation we must first get the gist of the situation; we must analyze the thought processes, circumstances surrounding the situation, such as ideals and viewpoints that are held by people involved in the affair, as well as the biases and bigotry that plagued this case. Then we will break down the case philosophically, using heuristics, the correspondence theory and the confirmation theory of truth, and lastly, the threshold effect in order to properly analyze this case.
The overview of the situation is that a man leaving a store was assaulted by a group of individuals that robbed and killed him. The only evidence that could be provided to the authorities is the alleged eyewitness account of a newspaper boy who claims to have observed the crime firsthand and states that a group of African American young adult men were the perpetrators of the whole affair. This is the only tidbit of information that has been the basis of the whole case of allegations and charges placed on these young men, and the police have refused to acknowledge and follow any other leads despite the evidence seeming to stack on another suspect who is apart from the men brought for consideration from the eyewitness, who wasn’t able to even correctly identify the suspect he claimed was the culprit (Possley). However, the police task force paid no heed to the new finding and continued on their quest to imprison the men. At the court case, several witnesses aside from what the eyewitness had testified against the presence of the men at the crime scene at the time of the crime, as well as the owner of the store who claimed she wasn’t able to identify the culprit herself. The police, in usual fashion, did not give the claims a second thought and persuaded the judge to rule a guilty sentence. The police were granted that sentence, with the men all being sentenced to death, but that was later changed to life in prison due to new legislation (Possley).
Why was this case allowed to proceed without the proper evidence to incriminate the individuals, and why would the people involved want these men arrested? Well, unseen at the surface of the case, the eyewitness that testified that claims against the men had been paid money by the store owner’s husband to testify his claims at the trial as well as being bribed by corrupt and sloth-like detectives looking for an easy arrest (Possley). The eyewitness, however, feeling the guilt brought on his conscientious, attempted to bail on the situation before being told that if he did his parents would be arrested for the crime of perjury (Flanagan and Shaer). These two actions: the possible arrest of his parents and the bribes given to give to follow through are likely reasons why the eyewitness continued on with his fable. The police, who seemed very stubborn and single-minded, refused to look into any other open doors to possible culprit. While there is no conclusive evidence as to why the police were so passionate about arresting the men, most point to racial violence, because the men are African American, and thus appear capable of doing more uncivilized actions that the average American (Flanagan and Shaer). They often receive bias and improper representation in the court, due to personal attitudes that people hold against them. The other alternative is that like the eyewitness, the police force was also bribed by the storeowner’s husband as well (Possley). There are no conclusive reasons as to how many circumstances may or may not have played a part in influences in the case, but the thought processes of both parties are a constant.
With these two thoughts in place, we see a world where the police and witness are charged up with high bribes (because fifty dollars was a lot of money back then) and were also encouraged by personal preferences that allowed them to transcend any moral barrier and conjure up lies to arrest the group of men. There is no conclusive evidence in place for these allegations and the only reason for them to create evidence is to justify their crimes and trespasses of the law. Their use of flawed reasoning resulted in the arrest of three innocent men, and that is not something that can be tolerated.
Now it is time we delve deeper into this mess of tangled and knotted reasoning by filling in the blanks by identifying important individuals (people who may lead us to the source of the haywire thought processes). It was 1975. A man named Harold Franks was leaving a shop when two men approached him and splashed a vial of hydrochloric acid on his face, blinding him. The other man then shoots him with his revolver seven times in the chest, killing him. They then steal $425 from his pockets and make an escape in a nearby getaway car. A local paperboy, Eddie Vernon, who claimed to be a witness to the crime, blames an 18-year-old man named Ricky Jackson and his friends, Wiley and Ronnie Bridgeman (Flanagan and Shaer).
The man in question, Ricky Jackson, had just returned from military service after being discharged due to a bad back, so he was back in his hometown with his friends the night of the murder. Ricky Jackson and his friends had at all times during the investigation pleaded innocent from the beginning, and many people saw that as it was clear from the get-go: these men standing in front of them had nothing to do with this (Possley). One thing that proved this was a fact was the witness, 12-year-old newspaper boy Eddie Vernon, could not identify the suspects from the police lineup, even though he claimed to have seen the crime in close detail, such as seeing Jackson himself fire the gun, Ronnie splashing the acid in the man’s face, and Wiley proving the getaway car. Eddie’s classmates had also testified that Eddie was nowhere near the scene of the crime (Swenson). Vernon was on a bus with them, heard shots and claimed to have seen it. But Vernon was on the bus at the time and thus could not have seen the crime. His classmates even came forward to tell the police this, but they were ignored, despite having even testified in court (Flanagan and Shaer).
Police had searched all three cars and homes of the three men and were unable to find any stolen property or a potential murder weapon that could have been used to commit the crime. The police also were unable to link the getaway car seen by the witnesses to any of the three suspects. There had also been another potential suspect with actual solid evidence against him, but the police had ignored it in the sight of the other three men, who the police seem to have wanted behind bars. It was also said that the police had beaten the three men to try to get a confession out of them in order to use it against them. They used a phone book between to make sure there were no marks and threatened them to make sure they stayed silent. They purposely tried to cover up what they were doing- they knew it was wrong. Why did they do it? Why did they treat these prisoners so wrongly? They beat the men to try to get a confession out of the three suspects, though they had nothing to confess. They simply wanted to put these men in jail. All of this evidence showed they were not guilty, but despite this, they were still condemned guilty and put behind bars in solitary confinement. (Flanagan and Shaer)
Ricky Jackson had also claimed that he had actually had never met Franks and was not present at the time of the murder. His alibi was not deemed solid and did not have a credible witness. Despite the fact that Eddie’s account was flawed and inconsistent, the jury still deemed his account credible enough and Jackson and the both Wiley and Ronnie Bridgeman were sentenced to the death by the electric chair. (Flanagan and Shaer)
Ricky Jackson was on death row for a year and a half before it was reduced to a life sentence. Jackson claimed that the fact that unnerved him the most was that people actually wanted him to be killed even though he had no fault whatsoever. (Smithsonian)Soon Ricky Jackson was moved to regular population at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility due to the fact that Ohio’s capital punishment law was deemed unconstitutional. At the beginning, Ricky Jackson had to learn to adjust to hard prison life and as a result, he got into many fights. These scrimmages caused him to spend months in solitary confinement. He recalled that he often felt depressed and trapped locked in a tiny prison cell. In order to escape the trapped, alone feeling that came with being stuck in prison, he began to busy himself such with other things, such as studying gardening. He also referred basketball games. Most of all, however, he found rest in the prison’s library, reading whatever book he could get his hand on. He normally read a book a day, whether it be a nature, biology, fiction, or history book, they all helped him to forget the sad state in which he was (Flanagan and Shaer).
Things were not much better for his friends Ronnie and Wiley Bridgeman, who were suffering a sentence just as long and miserable as their friend. To make matters worse, Wiley Bridgman’s case was overturned, and they were allowed parole and sent to a correctional facility from the traditional prison. Unfortunately for Bridgman, little did he know that Eddie Vernon was working as a security guard at the facility at the time. While that might not seem bad initially, occupants and guards usually come in contact with each other, but for Bridgman it was the end of his freedom. Contact with the plaintiff is a violation of parole. Bridgman was sent back to prison to resume his life sentence, and like most things in this case, it was because of diluted logic on the behalf of law enforcement officials. The officials should have given Wiley ample information that he was to avoid Vernon, or at least for his sake, have him sent to another facility. (Swenson)
However, these determined individuals were not willing to back down in the face of adversity and persevered in their quest to clear their names and regain the freedom that was so rightfully theirs. Jackson, in search for a way to free himself from prison, began to write to influential people, such as journalists, filmmakers, writers, and activists in search for the purpose of help Flanagan and Shaer). Ricky Jackson and Ronnie and Wiley Bridgeman had at all times believed the police had framed him. His efforts paid off when Jackson’s story was published in a Cleveland magazine in 2011. Many people in the Cleveland community took interest in Jackson story, including Eddie Vernon’s pastor, Arthur Singleton. The pastor then convinced Eddie to speak with the lawyers in order to turn over Ricky Jackson’s sentence after being reached out to by a reporter looking to figure more information on the case itself. Vernon then denied his former testimony, claiming, “I don’t have any knowledge about what happened at the scene of the crime. He pleaded to the law saying, “Everything was a lie. They were all lies” (Possley). In a talk with Arthur Singleton, Singleton stated, “Edward Vernon told me that he lied to the police when he said he had witnessed the murder in 1975, and he had put three innocent men in prison for murder. He told me that he tried to back out of the lie at the time of the line-up, but he was only a child and the police told him it was too late to change his story” (Possley). Due to how much racial tension there was during the time, it was not that unlikely.
Finally, in 2014, the state accepted Vernon’s new story and set Ricky Jackson free in 2015. Wiley Bridgeman had been released on parole in 2002 and Ronnie in 2003.Wiley had spent 27 years in jail and Ronnie had spent 28 years in jail. Wiley, however, was once again imprisoned due to a parole violation. Ricky Jackson, now having spent so long wrongfully in prison, his mental health was severely affected. (Cleveland)
Ricky Jackson tried to focus on starting his life the best that he could, despite having so much of his life taken from him. He received a settlement for a million dollars for his wrongful imprisonment. He later also received an extra 2.65 million of compensation. Ricky Jackson blames the corrupted system for all of his wrongful treatment, which had jailed him despite all the flimsy evidence. (Sherwell)
Though Ricky Jackson has received compensation for his treatment, he will never get back all the years of life he has lost; a total of 39 years was lost due to a corrupt system. He believes that he was denied his constitutional rights as an 18-year-old and wants to prove that those police officers had purposely created false evidence against him. Ricky, Wiley, and Ronnie are now at this point of time on the pursuit of justice, even though they are no longer guilty. They want justice for the corrupt police who imprisoned them. The two brothers, Ronnie and Wiley Bridgeman, have decided to file a lawsuit against many living and deceased Cleveland police detectives. (Steer) The lawsuit also alleges that it was, and still is, common practice for detectives to not turn note over, including witness statements, during the different investigations. Ricky Jackson has also filed a very similar lawsuit against the officers in the city. (Ortiz) Both of these different lawsuits claim that the detectives fabricate and create untrue and inaccurate information for the witness’s trial testimony. They also have falsified investigative reports. Ricky Jackson, at the present time, has the longest record of spent time in prison in the U.S before they were exonerated; Thirty-nine years of his life.
Thirty-nine years- arguably half of a person’s life- lost due to faulty reasoning. But how could such a mistake occur? Why would it happen? The key to the wrongful judgement in Ricky Jackson’s case is the same that plagues humans as a species: heuristics.
Heuristics are not horrible by nature. As a matter of fact, heuristics are a quick and easy way for a human to go by their day without too much mental effort, like brushing your teeth. However, not all heuristics are so benign. Racism, whether Americans would like to admit it or not, has been tightly woven into the fabric of our nation and culture, and unfortunately manifests subconsciously (Chow).
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Due to the prejudice mindset that the American legal forces had at the time, they accepted the faulty claims against these three innocent men without hesitation. They simply wanted these men behind bars and used this case as an excuse to do just that. They also treated these men with no respect whatsoever as they saw their skin color as who they are. With racism and racial prejudice so prominent in American society, people often subconsciously judge a person with a bias and sometimes judge against them because of it.
Racism in our culture is along the lines of a heuristic, and while we may not judge a person negatively because of it, we may automatically make certain assumptions in reference to a person due to how their skin is. It’s not just skin color though, we judge people according to how they look, what we have heard about them, and how they act and make assumptions using that as a bias. With our society, we are almost accustomed to racism and it is almost normal to make assumptions about a person. This mindset is also present in the minds of law enforcement, and back in 1975, that, with a little bit of flimsy evidence, was enough to put a man in prison for almost 39 years. But racism is not a thing of the past, racism still exists today. Many people are still victims of racial prejudice due to the fact that people have become simply accustomed to it.
As of 2015, it was reported that 149 not guilty prisoners were released from prisons across the U.S after having their names cleared. 54 of these innocent people had charges of murder, and 5 of them were even sentenced to death. The average sentence for these prisoners to spend wrongfully in prison was about 15 years. Many of these cases were due to incorrect eyewitness information. It is with very little doubt that this mistake, though perhaps not as extreme as this case, happens on a day to day basis, and many innocent people suffer because of it. Though we are all human, and make judgement errors, some of these cases are much more than a misalignment in judgement, it’s a certain mindset that has been engraved in the minds of many Americans. (Hause and Marti)
Often times with the countless number of incriminations of innocent individuals, the reason is that flawed reasoning is usually the only real culprit. One main concept in philosophy is the correspondence theory of truth. The correspondence theory of truth states that the validity or falsity of a statement is determined by how it is in relation to the world it was testified in (such as if it correctly fits the descriptions and ideas in the world in which it is described in) (Samuelson and Church). In these cases, this theory was misused, logic was thrown out of the window, and a world that did not fully exist was created. This is especially evident in the case of Ricky Jackson, Wiley Bridgeman, and Kwame Ajamu (formerly known as Ronnie Bridgman). This can be seen in Eddie Vernon’s account in which he cried wolf about the men’s involvement in the case. Vernon stated that these men, who he believed were the culprits but were actually just the culprits of a fake world that he had created, and the world fell for his ideals and assumed there was truth in his statement because it had fit the circumstances presented in this alternate world.
If we take a deeper look at the ideals, as well as the influence of those ideals, we can get a bigger picture of what resulted in the skewed reasoning that plagued this case from the start. We can start by examining the effects of the statement given by the eyewitness, which is a major theme that played a major role in determining the results of the case. Vernon’s claims gave substance to a case without any solid basis.
It does not help that the statement was the first piece of evidence that sounded sound in judgment, fit in with the times (a group of black men had jumped an innocent man), and gave the police a lead that they could investigate almost immediately. The police, who from the looks of the case were very ignorant and lazy, were dead set on incriminating these men, with little to no regard on if their choices were credible and sound (Possley). We can apply the confirmation theory to explain the thought process of these officers. The confirmation theory states that associations lead can sometimes cause “jumping to conclusions,” and in the case of the people men, jumping to the wrong conclusion (Chow).
This explains the eagerness of the task force to zoom in on the possibility of Jackson and the Bridgmans’ involvement, as they were too quick to jump to the conclusive result that they were the only logic choice because there was a tie that drew them to the case, regardless of whether the association was correct. This would also explain why the police did not think to consider the other suspect that were brought in for cross-examination in the case. Since the lead came so early in the case, because it was the initial allegation, the force had already built up so much thought and added so much depth in trying to back up and “justify” their conclusion that even if they had a change of mind, they would not be able to justify the new claims without drawing substantial amounts of criticism and skepticism from other law force members.
Just like how we mentioned the abuse of the correspondence of truth above, the same theory applies to the Ohio police force. These men were so blinded and corrupted that they created a world in which these men were guilty and made the whole, gullible world around them believe it. It is the direct result of the confirmation theory above. Because they believed it was the right choice that had some form of “definitive” ties to the issues at hand, the police conjured up a fake world that was ultimately influenced by the ideals of the men being guilty and deserving of death that was presented to them by the eyewitness’ dreamy, unrealistic world.
Another example of philosophical theory put into motion that can be witnessed in this case is a subsection of the threshold theory. This theory states that when a person is bombarded with a ton of information, they resort to “guessing” and picking the choice that sounds the most familiar and reasonable to them, even if it is not necessarily correct (Lamond). This is evident in the situation of Eddie Vernon and the subject identification test. Vernon was bombarded with tons of different choices and thus chose the person that was familiar and seemed to “fit” the requirements. Vernon, however, chose incorrectly, thus helping debunk the correctness of his rational logic as well as the start of questioning of whether or not the police were right to point fingers at Jackson.
Heuristics, false truths, the confirmation theory, and the threshold effect led to the longest wrongful indictment in the history of the United States. Ricky Jackson suffered 37 years in the prison system for a crime he didn’t commit. It is important for our nation to advocate the jurisdiction of a fair and well-justified court case for every citizen, no matter the internal bias or association the jury or judge may have. Little mistakes can cause major disasters.
- Annie Flanagan, Matthew Shaer. “After 39 Years of Wrongful Imprisonment, Ricky Jackson Is Finally Free.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Jan. 2017, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/years-wrongful-imprisonment-ricky-jackson-finally-free-180961434/.
- Chow, Sheldon J. “Many Meanings of ‘Heuristic.’” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, vol. 66, no. 4, Dec. 2015, pp. 977–1016. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1093/bjps/axu028.
- Swenson, Kyle. “Good Kids, Bad City: After 39 Years of Wrongful Incarceration, Ricky Jackson and the Bridgeman Brothers Walk Free.” Cleveland Scene, Cleveland Scene, 4 June 2019, www.clevescene.com/scene-and-heard/archives/2014/12/03/good-kids-bad-city-after-39-years-of-wrongful-incarceration-ricky-jackson-and-the-bridgeman-brothers-walk-free.
- Lamond, Grant. “Precedent and Analogy in Legal Reasoning.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 20 June 2006, plato.stanford.edu/entries/legal-reas-prec/.
- Ortiz, Erik. “Ohio Man Ricky Jackson, Exonerated After 39 Years in Prison, Sues Police.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 11 June 2015, www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/ohio-man-ricky-jackson-exonerated-after-39-years-prison-sues-n361531.
- Possley, Maurice. Ricky Jackson- National Registry of Exonerations, University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science and Society, and University of Michigan Law School, and the University of Michigan College of Law www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/casedetail.aspx?caseid=4553.
- Samuelson, Peter L., and Ian M. Church. “When Cognition Turns Vicious: Heuristics and Biases in Light of Virtue Epistemology.” Philosophical Psychology, vol. 28, no. 8, Dec. 2015, pp. 1095–1113. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/09515089.2014.904197.
- Cleveland, Associated Press in. “Cleveland Man Wrongly Imprisoned for 40 Years Sues Officers Who ‘Framed’ Him.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 19 May 2015, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/may/19/cleveland-ricky-jackson-wrongful-imprisonment-lawsuit.
- Steer, Jen. “Wrongfully-Convicted Man Who Spent 39 Years in Prison Sues Cleveland, Police.” fox8.Com, FOX 8- A Tribune Broadcasting Station, 19 May 2015, fox8.com/2015/05/19/wrongfully-convicted-man-who-spent-39-years-in-prison-sues cleveland-police/.
- Sherwell, Philip. “America’s Longest-Serving Innocent Prisoner Receives $1m for 39 Years in Jail.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 20 Mar. 2015, www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/11485165/Americas-longest-serving-innocent-prisoner-receives-1m-for-39-years-in-jail.html.
- Hause, Marti, and Ari Melber. “Jailed but Innocent: Record Number of People Exonerated in 2015.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 3 Feb. 2016, www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/jailed-innocent-record-number-people-exonerated-2015-n510196.
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