Cover image for Good kids, bad city : a story of race and wrongful conviction in America's rust belt
Good kids, bad city : a story of race and wrongful conviction in America's rust belt
Physical Description:
xii, 289 pages ; 25 cm.
A spark plus a spark plus a spark -- That particular day -- Black and blue -- X-ray eyes -- We yet exist -- Mens rea -- Alhamdulillah -- The males are from the neighborhood -- What the boy saw -- Super flop -- Hypertension -- We can fix this -- 39 years, 3 months, 6 days -- Not your town anymore -- Epilogue: comeback.
Documents the true story of one of the longest wrongful imprisonment cases in U.S. history, detailing how three African-American men were incarcerated for nearly four decades before a questionable witness recanted his testimony.


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Book 345.771 SWE 1 1
Book 345.771 SWE 0 1

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From award-winning investigative journalist Kyle Swenson, Good Kids, Bad City is the true story of the longest wrongful imprisonment in the United States to end in exoneration, and a critical social and political history of Cleveland, the city that convicted them.

In the early 1970s, three African-American men--Wiley Bridgeman, Kwame Ajamu, and Rickey Jackson--were accused and convicted of the brutal robbery and murder of a man outside of a convenience store in Cleveland, Ohio. The prosecution's case, which resulted in a combined 106 years in prison for the three men, rested on the more-than-questionable testimony of a pre-teen, Ed Vernon.

The actual murderer was never found. Almost four decades later, Vernon recanted his testimony, and Wiley, Kwame, and Rickey were released. But while their exoneration may have ended one of American history's most disgraceful miscarriages of justice, the corruption and decay of the city responsible for their imprisonment remain on trial.

Interweaving the dramatic details of the case with Cleveland's history--one that, to this day, is fraught with systemic discrimination and racial tension--Swenson reveals how this outrage occurred and why. Good Kids, Bad City is a work of astonishing empathy and insight: an immersive exploration of race in America, the struggling Midwest, and how lost lives can be recovered.

Author Notes

KYLE SWENSON is a reporter for The Washington Post. A finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists, he is also the recipient of the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi Award for Feature Reporting. His work has appeared in The Village Voice , The New Republic, and Longreads . A graduate of Kenyon College, he lives in Washington, D.C.

Reviews 5

Publisher's Weekly Review

In his vivid, extensively researched debut, Washington Post reporter Swenson uncovers the story of the longest wrongful imprisonment in U.S. history to end in exoneration. Three young black men-Wiley Bridgeman, Kwame Ajamu (then Ronnie Bridgeman), and Rickey Jackson-were convicted of the 1975 robbery and murder of a white salesman outside a Cleveland convenience store. Despite a glaring lack of physical evidence and a witness who testified they weren't the perpetrators, the prosecution claimed they were based solely on the testimony of 12yearold Edward Vernon. Thirtynine years later, Vernon recanted his coerced testimony and the men were released. With empathy, Swenson follows the three convicted men from their adolescence in a closeknit Cleveland neighborhood through the ways they handled their time in prison and their freedom. His equally sympathetic portrait of Vernon chronicles decades of substance abuse and addiction caused, in part, by guilt. Arguing this travesty of justice was rooted in the city's "larger failure," Swenson highlights the high crime rate, decaying infrastructure, race riots, and unchecked police corruption that plagued Cleveland during the 1960s and '70s, in addition to exploring the broader failures of the "war on crime" and the "war on drugs." Cinematically written, this powerful tragedy of racial injustice and urban dysfunction will make readers question the idea that America can promise "justice for all." Agent: David Patterson, Stuart Krichevsky Agency. (Feb.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Booklist Review

Journalist Swenson devotes his first book to the story of three wrongful convictions and the systems that contributed to innocent men spending more than three decades in prison. Based on the questionable testimony of a 12-year-old boy, Wiley Bridgeman, Kwame Ajamu, and Rickey Jackson were tried and convicted in 1975 of a murder and robbery that they did not commit. When Cleveland police arrested them, Ajamu and Jackson were only 18 years old, and Bridgeman was 21. All three maintained their innocence throughout their years in prison. In 2014, 39 years after the sentencing, the witness recanted his testimony. Swenson situates Bridgeman, Ajamu, and Jackson's tragic story in the larger historical context of race relations and politics in Cleveland and in the U.S. as a whole. With novelistic storytelling, Swenson explores long-standing issues in Cleveland's police department and justice system, outlining other wrongful convictions and the rise of DNA evidence in trials. With clear current relevance, Good Kids, Bad City is essential for readers of U.S. history, law, and culture.--Laura Chanoux Copyright 2018 Booklist

New York Review of Books Review

JOURNALISTS fortunate enough to have started their careers at small-town newspapers or on city desks at metro dailies know about the jailhouse mail. The envelopes arrive every so often, packed almost to rupture with handwritten letters and supporting documentation meant to provoke the recipient into investigating the sender's agitated claim of inno- cence. One of my own regrets as a reporter is not having done more with the letters I got - because you never know. Kyle Swenson got some of those letters while on staff early this decade at The Cleveland Scene, the city's alternative weekly. And he also got a phone call. Not from a man in prison, but from a man named Kwame Ajamu, who had been released on parole in 2003 after serving 28 years for a 1975 murder he said he had nothing to do with. Looking back, Swenson conjectures that one reason he took Ajamu's claims as seriously as he did was that Ajamu was so committed to press his case despite having already gotten out. He wanted his name cleared - and most of all, he wanted to free his brother and friend, who were still behind bars for the same murder. Swenson, a product of the Cleveland suburbs and not long out of college, decided to dig in. His resulting article, published in June 2011, would represent a major step on the path to vindication for the men. Three years later, they would make the history books for an ambiguous honor: With a combined 106 years in prison, theirs was most likely the longest wrongful imprisonment to end in an exoneration in the history of the United States. This is the story Swenson sets out to recount in his book, though he makes plain early on that it is not the only story he is going to tell. Tales of exoneration after wrongful imprisonment face some fundamental narrative challenges. For one thing, the outcome is already known: long-overdue vindication. For another thing, these accounts present a dramatic situation that is almost too vast to conceive of - the nightmare of spending a decade or two or three locked away for a crime you didn't commit - while at the same time often fairly pedestrian and limited in its legal particulars. It's the sort of story that is both too big for a book, and not big enough. To address the latter problem, Swenson has paired his account of what happened to these three men with the story of the city in which they were arrested and convicted. Their fate, Swenson suggests, is tied up with the fate of Cleveland, which, when they were born in the 1950s, was still one of the 10 biggest cities in the country, but by the time they were charged in 1975 was in sharp decline, a product of white flight, deindustrialization and disinvestment. He links the men's wrongful imprisonment to a litany of ongoing institutional failures in the city, among them neglecting to apprehend a serial killer who, undetected for years, hid 11 women's bodies at his home in an impoverished East Side neighborhood; the devastation wreaked over the last decade by subprime lenders; and a sweeping corruption racket in the government of Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland. "If we'd hit the point where we no longer expected our police officers to stop serial killers before body counts reached the double digits ... if whole neighborhoods could disappear now under fineprint mortgages while the county government simply watched a tax base drain away," he writes, "was it so hard then to believe the criminal justice system could put the wrong men in jail for a murder?" The answer to that rhetorical question is of course no, but the details of how the system got this one wrong still manage to shock. On May 19,1975, a white 58-year-old money-order salesman by the name of Harry Franks was making his rounds collecting cash when two young men confronted him outside a convenience store, hit him with a metal pipe, tossed acid in his face and tried to grab his briefcase full of money. One of the robbers pulled a gun and shot Franks, killing him, while wounding a woman inside the store. In the ensuing days, the police would get tips about several possible suspects. But they took the word of 12-year-old Edward Vernon, who had been in the crowd of kids that gathered around the crime scene and, when an officer came over to inquire for witnesses, eagerly volunteered himself. He later identified Rickey Jackson, 18, as the shooter and Ronnie Bridgeman, 17 (who later changed his name to Kwame Ajamu), as the co-assailant; the police alleged that Wiley Bridgeman, 20, Ronnie's brother, had driven the getaway car. The ensuing trials of the defendants, who like Vernon were African-American, were riddled with red flags: A teenage girl who was inside the store insisted that the attackers were not Rickey and Ronnie; inconsistencies proliferated in the accounts Ed gave the police and the various juries; testimony by other children that Ed had not left school early that day on a city bus, a crucial element of his account. One boy testified that when he asked Ed on the day of the murder how he could have seen the killer when the other kids he was with had not, Ed said, "I have got X-ray eyes." Nonetheless, juries voted to convict all three. Swenson does his best to conjure the unimaginable years that follow, as the men are dispersed across the Ohio prison system. Rickey witnesses three murders and a gang rape. Wiley is diagnosed with depression and schizophrenia and spends nearly half his time in mental health units. Also suffering, though, was Ed Vernon, whose life spins into a spiral of crack addiction. He spends two years behind bars on a drug charge. Later, he encounters Wiley, out on parole before being returned to prison for a parole violation, and rebuffs his pleas to come clean about the case. The break finally comes when a local pastor manages to confront Vernon about his decades-old lies, which dissolve in a sudden upsurge of self-liberating honesty. It is only now, when the truth pours out of Vernon, that the context of the lies becomes known: the pressure that detectives were putting on him to deliver on his claim to having witnessed the killing, going so far as to threaten him with perjury charges. The role of these officers was so crucial that one is left wanting to know more about them. Swenson sketches the rise of tough-oncrime policing in the 1970s that formed the backdrop of the officers' actions, but they are individuals, like Vernon and the defendants, whose motives and moral agency could have used more expansive treatment. Swenson's account of the War on Crime context also elides the role that was played by demands from within the black community to take on drug dealers. Another shortcoming is one of excess, not absence. Swenson has a predilection for figurative language that occasionally hits the lyrical mark but more often distracts. Just in the book's first two paragraphs one encounters "roadways split like bad fruit," "a bent elbow of sidewalk" and "drivers slinging past us like pinballs," among several other metaphorand simile-laden sentences. It's almost as if Swenson doesn't entirely trust his material to carry a book without his stylistic embellishment. But it does. It's the story of a grave injustice, whose long-overdue correction delivers a strong emotional punch when it finally arrives. More broadly, it's a story about negligence, about all the ways in which residents of cities such as Cleveland have been left abandoned by government and society at large. There's so much talk these days about the great urban rebirth that the persistent struggles of non-superstar cities are too often overlooked. Swenson does a service simply by capturing the daily demoralization of existence in such a place: " It was hard to tally the net effect all this institutional calamity had on your average Clevelander," he writes. "When the basics of your city - catching killers or putting diplomas in kids' hands or stabilizing a tax base - don't work anymore, there's a feeling of being edged out of the American mainstream." A big part of that abandonment involves the media: The plight of these cities is increasingly at risk of being ignored because there are so few reporters left to document it. Swenson is now at The Washington Post. Cleveland is lucky to still have The Scene - many other cities have lost their alt-weeklies - but the city's daily paper, The Plain Dealer, has been debilitated by cutbacks. One can't help wondering what life-shattering injustices might go unaddressed in the future for lack of a curious reporter to take a call or open an envelope. alec MacGILLIS is a reporter for ProPublica and the author of "The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell."

Kirkus Review

An empathetic report on the longest wrongful incarceration in the history of the United States to conclude with exoneration.In his debut book, an expansion of his popular Cleveland Scene feature, Washington Post journalist Swenson weaves together the dramatic details of a 1975 incident in Cleveland in which three black men were falsely accused and convicted of the murder of Harry Franks, a white man, outside of a convenience store. The author begins with a sweeping history of Cleveland, especially the 1960s and '70s, when increasing racial tensions and unrest haunted the region alongside rampant discrimination, urban infrastructural decay, and the crack epidemic that ushered in and decimated the city in the 1980s. Swenson introduces us to Kwame Ajamu, Wiley Bridgeman, and Rickey Jackson, boys for whom Cleveland had become their playground and true home. The author's portraits of the boys are carefully and lucidly drawn, as he captures their maturation into young men who were in the wrong place when Franks was fatally shot. At their trial, the prime witness, a 12-year-old neighborhood boy named Edward Vernon, testified against them, and all were charged with the murder despite a glaring absence of physical evidentiary support. Swenson also delivers a vital portrait of Vernon's adult life, plagued by drug abuse and unhappiness, and of his shocking retraction just as Bridgeman was paroled after 27 years in prison. Compelling and heartfelt, the author's cinematic chronicle moves swiftly through these events, and embedded in this tale of gross criminal injustice is the frustrating history and scarred legacy of Cleveland, a city harboring a "deepening woe" and mired in political corruption, racial conflict, and unbridled crime. Through in-person interviews and extensive, diligent research, Swenson brings this travesty of justice into impressive, necessary focus.In this sharply written, emotionally resonant rendering, the author makes crystal-clear the heartbreaking realities of wrongful imprisonment, race, and the many flaws of the American criminal justice system. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Library Journal Review

After a 1975 murder-homicide of a white man in Cleveland, award-winning journalist Swenson follows Kwame Ajamu, Ricky Jackson, and Wiley Bridgman-three young black men wrongfully arrested, tried, convicted, and incarcerated for the crime. The author deftly develops a multilayered story of lives unjustly stolen amid the circumstances and experiences of a postindustrial city's struggles with an ugly past of racial anger and distrust. His focus also includes a critique of fatal errors that can significantly impact criminal prosecutions, from misguided detectives to belligerent prosecutors to false testimony by experts, all of which can lead to wrongful convictions. He shows how numbers-driven, procedure-geared litigation has furthered a culture favoring speed over accuracy, leading innocent people to be incarcerated at disproportionate rates and spawning a nationwide innocence movement to battle wrongful convictions. Lastly, the author calls for the reform of systemic practices, such as DNA exonerations. VERDICT Swenson's exposé lays bare the criminal justice system's failures, along with the politicization that the war on crime and war on drugs promoted. A must-read.-Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State Univ., Tempe © Copyright 2019. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Author's Notep. xi
Prologue: Busted Pavementp. 1
Part I Down The Way
1 A Spark Plus a Spark Plus a Sparkp. 17
2 That Particular Dayp. 38
3 Black and Bluep. 52
4 X-Ray Eyesp. 75
5 We Yet Existp. 92
Part II Flat Time
6 Mens Reap. 113
7 Alhamdulillahp. 129
8 The Males Are from the Neighborhoodp. 144
9 What the Boy Sawp. 161
Part III Not Your Town Anymore
10 Super Flopp. 183
11 Hypertensionp. 201
12 We Can Fix Thisp. 210
13 39 Years, 3 Months, 6 Daysp. 228
14 Not Your Town Anymorep. 248
Epilogue: Comebackp. 257
Acknowledgmentsp. 269
Notesp. 271
Indexp. 281