Death row exoneree Kwame Ajamu spoke about his experience with the criminal-justice system last Wednesday night in Morton Hall as part of Ohio University’s “90 Minute” lecture series.  

Ajamu, who spent nearly three decades in prison wrongfully convicted of murder, was joined in conversation by Ohioans to Stop Executions Director Kevin Werner. OU student J.L. Kirven moderated the discussion.  

The men opened with a description of May 19, 1975. 

From what Ajamu – then known as Ronnie Bridgeman – remembers, it was a beautiful day; he, his brother and a friend were playing basketball in their Cleveland neighborhood. Around the corner, at an East Side convenience store, however, money-order salesman Harold Franks was attacked with acid, shot and killed. 

Police pinned the murder on Ajamu, Wiley Bridgeman and Ricky Jackson based on the testimony of Eddie Vernon, then 12, who claimed to have witnessed the crime. 

At 17, Ajamu was sentenced to death and sent to prison, where he was introduced to his “hot date,” the guards called it – the electric chair.  “It was terrifying to say the very least,” Ajamu recalled. “I still think about that. That is the ugliest chair… It’s like looking down the barrel of a .357 shotgun.”  

Ajamu spent the next 27 years behind bars, enduring as he called it, “a mental and psychological game of warfare.” He was confined to a cell just wide enough to stretch his arms. 

“Isolation is the worst thing you can (do to) a human being,” Ajamu said. “It softens the brain. It makes you (not function) as a person. Very few people come out… and have the ability to sit here like I’m doing.” 

While serving his sentence, Ajamu said, he lost his mother, his biggest support system. After her death, he vowed to reinvent himself, legally changing his name from “Ronnie Bridgeman” to Kwame, which means “born on Saturday,” he said. 

His mother died on a Friday and Ronnie Bridgeman died with her; on Saturday, Kwame Ajamu was born again.  

Ajamu’s sentence eventually was commuted and he was paroled in 2003. After prison, Ajamu said he worked for the Ohio Board of Elections, making $10 per hour, while his counterparts grossed $67,000 a year. He was even sent letters from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction asking for monthly payments in exchange for his freedom.

When asked what the point of prison was – rehabilitation or punishment – Ajamu responded: 

“It has nothing to do with ‘right and wrong.’ It has everything to do with dollars and cents.” 

Werner said parolees are released with $75 in cash and a bus ticket; exonerees, which Ajamu would later become, don’t even have that luxury, he added. 

In 2013, Vernon, who as a 12-year-old boy testified to seeing Ajamu, Bridgeman and Jackson kill Franks in 1975, recanted his testimony on his death bed.

Vernon’s faulty testimony resulted from a corrupt police force, misconduct and “tunnel vision” on the part of the prosecuting attorney, Werner charged; the state had a theory and molded the evidence to fit that theory, even coercing a young boy into making false allegations. 

“We have this uncanny faction about us as human beings to seek out people to harm, to go find people to displace, to find families to terrorize,” Ajamu said.  

The three men were exonerated by the court in December 2014.

“That time on death row, in that cell, was pure terror –it was pure torture,” Ajamu said. “There’s no way around it. I’m just one of the few guys that was able to at least walk away a little better.” 

Exoneration felt like “utopia,” Ajamu said. 

After the conclusion of the conversation Wednesday evening, the men took audience questions. One attendee asked how the government can funnel money spent on mass incarceration into preventative and rehabilitative programs. 

“We know the kinds of programs that keep people out of prison,” Werner replied. “We know the kinds of programs that work for individuals that have substance-abuse issues. It’s a question of, ‘Are we ready to do that and to take those things seriously?’” 

To close, an attendee noted that Ajamu received more than $1 million in compensation from the state of Ohio for his wrongful imprisonment and asked if that was enough. 

“There’s not enough money in the world to compensate one minute of my life,” Ajamu said. “It means nothing to me.” 

The “90-Minutes” program, put together by OU assistant professor of journalism Justice Hill, is intended to “hold conversations that make people uncomfortable.”

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