The Criminal Justice and Political Science Club will host two public forums on “Witness to Innocence” on Tuesday, April 19.
In the morning, the first event is the Wrongful Conviction Forum from 10:30 a.m. to noon and will be held in Vivian Auditorium, located in Whitewater Hall. This forum will feature speakers Associate Professor of Criminal Justice Bob Ramsey, Wayne County Sheriff Jeff Cappa, Wayne County Prosecutor Mike Shipman, Superior Court Judge Darrin Dolehanty, and exonerated speakers Paris Powell and Kwame Ajamu.
Later that evening, Powell and Ajamu will speak at 7 p.m. in Vivian Auditorium.
The forums are free and open to the public.
Powell was born in Indiana. He was one of four children; his single mother made him a ward of the state when he was 5 years old. Powell was in and out of trouble as early as age 8. At age 18 when he left Rader Juvenile Detention Center in Oklahoma, he was cared for by gang members. Never a gang member himself, some associated him with gang activity because of this connection. A Rader field trip to Northeastern Oklahoma Community College connected him with football there. He attended the community college the following fall, played football, was president of Russell Hall dorm, and was on the presidential advisory board. Though he attended college for less than two semesters, he considers that time a miracle for him, as it got him off of the streets.
On the night of June 24, 1993, in Oklahoma City, Okla., 14-year-old Shauna Farrow walked home from a party with 17-year-old Derrick Smith. As a hatchback car passed by, the driver’s side door opened, and the driver and a passenger opened fire, killing Farrow and injuring Smith.
Smith, who was facing charges for drug trafficking, was questioned by the police about the identity of the shooters. At first he gave inconsistent reports, but eventually he implicated Yancy Douglas and Paris Powell. Douglas and Powell were charged with the crimes in August 1993. Paris had just turned 20.
The two men were tried separately, almost two years apart. Smith was the key witness at both trials, identifying Douglas and Powell as the shooters, and stating that he received no special deals from prosecutors in exchange for his testimony. Both men were convicted and sentenced to death – Douglas in October 1995, and Powell in May 1997.
Attorneys for Douglas and Powell appealed the convictions, but received no relief. Then, in 2001, Smith wrote an affidavit recanting his testimony against Douglas and Powell. He stated that he had been drunk and high on the night of the shooting, and was unable to identify the shooters, but police had coerced him into naming Douglas and Powell and offered a reduced sentence for his drug trafficking charges.
Attorneys presented this new evidence to various courts, and after a series of unsuccessful challenges, the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals District vacated the convictions in 2009. Prosecutors decided not to retry the case, and on October 4, 2009, all charges were dropped and Douglas and Powell were released from prison.
In 2013, the attorney who prosecuted Powell and Douglas was suspended for 180 days by Oklahoma Supreme Court. The Court ruled that the prosecutor had abused the subpoena process to force witnesses to cooperate, failed to disclose evidence to the defense and obstructed the defense’s access to evidence.
Ajamu was a teenager in Cleveland, Ohio, when he was sentenced to death in 1975 for the murder-robbery of a money order salesman named Harold Franks. The sole evidence against Kwame, known as Ronnie Bridgeman at the time, and his co-defendants, brother Wiley Bridgeman and friend Ricky Jackson, was the false, coerced eyewitness testimony of a 13-year-old boy named Eddie Vernon, who was to later play a central role in exonerating the three men. No physical or forensic evidence linked any of them to the crime, none of them had any prior criminal record, and defense witnesses provided all three with credible alibis. Nevertheless, all three were sentenced to death just months after their arrest, later commuted to life without parole.
In January 2003, Ronnie Bridgeman was released from prison on parole, still carrying the stigma of being arrested for a heinous crime he did not commit.
In 2011, Cleveland Scene magazine published a detailed examination of the case and highlighted the numerous inconsistencies in young Eddie Vernon’s testimony, and the absence of any other evidence linking Jackson and the Bridgemans to the crime. The reporter reached out to the pastor of Vernon in an attempt to talk to him, but Vernon still refused to talk openly about the case. The pastor later said in a sworn affidavit that
“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.” At the urging of his pastor, Vernon publicly recanted his story, setting in motion the exonerations of Kwame Ajamu, Wiley Bridgeman, and Ricky Jackson.
Prompted by the recantation, attorneys with the Ohio Innocence Project filed a petition for a new trial on behalf of Jackson. Similar petitions were later filed on behalf of Wiley Bridgeman and Ronnie Bridgeman, who had since changed his name to Kwame Ajamu. The Ohio Innocence Project’s re-investigation of the case uncovered evidence that when Vernon attempted to recant his identification of the three defendants, police intimidated him to testify falsely. The police had never disclosed to the defense attorneys for the three defendants that Vernon attempted to recant his accusation prior to the trials.
In November 2014, Judge Richard McMonagle granted motions for a new trial filed by Ricky Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman and vacated their convictions. The prosecution then dismissed the charges against both of them and they were released. On December 9, 2014, Kwame Ajamu’s conviction was vacated and the prosecution dismissed the charges against him.