CLEVELAND, Ohio – Wiley Bridgeman, who spent more than half his life in prison for a murder he did not commit, died of complications from COPD on Sunday, his brother told cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer.
Bridgeman, 66, served more than 37 years in prison prior to his release in 2014. He died in a hospital bed next to his little brother Kwame Ajamu, who was also convicted and exonerated along with Bridgeman and her boyfriend Rickey Jackson.
“He still managed to be a very encouraging, very intellectual, very bright star,” said Ajamu, 63, in a phone interview on Monday. “They didn’t put out his fire, even though they dimmed a lot of the lights.”
Ajamu fought back tears when he remembered his brother.
“He was my very first friend in the whole world,” he said.
Bridgeman, Ajamu and Jackson were 20, 17 and 18 years old, respectively, when a jury, urged by prosecutors, wrongly convicted them of the 1975 murder of Cleveland businessman Harold Franks in a gunfight outside a shop south of University Circle died. They were sentenced to death and spent two years on death row before the US Supreme Court ruled 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 then 12-year-old critical witness at the trial retracted his testimony. Eddie Vernon testified in 2014 that Cleveland police pressured him to lie on the witness stand and identify the trio as Frank’s murderers.
Upon his release, the City of Cleveland agreed to pay the three men a combined US $ 18 million to settle a lawsuit in the US District Court.
“Wiley was a beautiful and kind soul who endured the worst form of criminal injustice imaginable,” civil rights attorney Terry Gilbert, who represented Bridgeman and Ajamu, said in a statement to cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer. “But his loss of freedom did not deter him, he would never give up one day and be free.”
Bridgeman served in the National Guard and was studying law before his arrest and sentencing, his lawyers said in a press release Monday.
Ajamu said Bridgeman was his hero, teaching Ajamu to walk and talk in typical big brother manner. He remembered being children in the early 1960s when the Hanna Barbera animated series “Wally Gator” aired. Ajamu called his big brother “Wiley Gator” and while Bridgeman chased him around the house, Ajamu shouted, “See you later, Wiley Gator”.
Bridgeman eventually realized that giving his little brother a dose of justice to big brother would not stop, Ajamu said.
“He started saying, ‘after a while, crocodile’,” said Ajamu. “That was my husband.”
Bridgeman lived a life of “great difficulty and resentment” that began when the two children were in a Catholic school. Nuns tried to correct Bridgeman’s left-handedness by slapping his hand with a ruler, Ajamu said.
Bridgeman began showing signs of mental illness around 1977 after his original conviction was overturned and he was sentenced to death a second time. Bridgeman, who had exchanged letters with Ajamu since they ended up on death row, began threatening himself and his brother in the letters after the second death sentence, Ajamu said. Prison officials started treating him and giving him other drugs to treat the side effects, Ajamu said.
When prison doctors found a mass in his lungs that turned out to be smoking-related COPD, Ajamu said Bridgeman did not believe them or trusted them to give him more medication.
“He never did justice to a figure of authority he was comfortable with,” said Ajamu. “It’s just so sad because this guy was brilliant.”
Ajamu said Bridgeman continued to show flashes of brilliance and struggled with his mental health after his release from prison.
Bridgeman was arrested in April 2018 and charged with grievous death on a vehicle following a fatal hit-and-run accident by a construction worker in University Heights, according to court records. Bridgeman pleaded not guilty and his case was pending at the time of his death.
Ajamu, who was paroled in 2003 while Bridgeman and Jackson remained incarcerated, said he learned that his brother and friend were released when he was replacing the brakes on his car. Jackson called him and told him he had just been released from prison and if he hurried he could catch Bridgeman leaving the justice center.
“I almost knocked the car off the jack,” he said.
He said he reassembled the car and drove downtown just as Bridgeman was leaving the courthouse. A photographer took a picture of Ajamu grabbing his brother’s snow-white beard.
“Then they condemned us, I was 17 and he was 20. He had no beard, especially not a white one,” said Ajamu and began to cry. “I was amazed at how time robbed us.”
Ajamu said Bridgeman lived on 4 acres in Summit County that resembled the Ponderosa Ranch on the old television show “Bonanza”. It’s full of flowers and wildlife that Ajamu helped keep Bridgeman sane, he said. Bridgeman continued to write in his final years, and Ajamu said he wanted to publish a book about his brother’s work.
Ajamu said he, his wife, and niece were pretty much the only family Bridgeman had left. The rest of her family died while they were in prison. Bridgeman was hospitalized last week and required 100 percent oxygen to breathe, Ajamu said. Bridgeman took Ajamu’s wife and niece by the hand and told them everything would be fine, Ajamu said.
“I’m pretty sure that when he left here he wasn’t scared at all,” said Ajamu.
Ajamu said he was home in Richmond Heights on Sunday when he received the call that his brother was running out of time. He raced to the hospital and stayed long after Bridgeman’s death.
“I witnessed the suffering and submission my brother endured when he was alone. I swore that if I could get him out of prison, I would never leave him alone, ”Ajamu said. “And so I stayed with him until I was sure he wasn’t anymore.”