UNDOUBTEDLY, the popular Arabic proverb – Many injustices in prison – applies to many cases in the world particularly in the Arab world. This is due to the fact that the law is blind and does not see injustice, as the jurists say.
An example of such injustices is narrated in the following story that occurred in the US state of Ohio in 1975.
Three thieves robbed and murdered a businessman Harry Franks who was in possession of not more than $ 425.
At that time, Eddie Vernon, who was 12 years old, was the only key witness in the case. The court took into consideration his statements to convict 17-year old Ronnie Bridgeman a.k.a. Kwame Ajamu, his 20-year old brother Wiley Bridgeman and their 19-year old friend Ricky Jackson and sentenced them to death. This sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment.
Ajamu was released on parole a decade before the other two, who remained behind bars until 2014. Their case was studied again in a bid to exonerate them after a story published by award-winning investigative journalist Kyle Swenson in Ohio’s Scene Magazine in 2011 detailed flaws in the case. The story had a great impact on the public opinion, prompting the retrial of the three defendants.
Meanwhile, Vernon, who was then 52 years of age, recanted his testimony and revealed that the Cleveland police detectives coerced him into testifying that the three killed businessman Harry Franks on the afternoon of May 19, 1975.
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. The court also announced its readiness to accept a compensation motion.
After the acquittal was read, Kwame Ajamu burst into tears. The judge sympathized with him, and left the arch of the court, approached him in tears, and embraced him to comfort him.
It took 39 years to prove the innocence of a man who had committed no crime. With overwhelming tears, Ajamu then said, “I am on an emotional high because this room is lit by the truth. I hope we will not have to wait another forty years for the next Kwame Ajamu, Wiley Bridgeman, and Ricky Jackson. I hope from today we will stop ignoring the obvious in the criminal justice system.
He then thanked journalist Kyle Swenson for saving him from prison.
In response to whether he would file a compensation motion, Ajamu said, “All I want is for the laws that caused our wrongful imprisonment to be reviewed. This injustice robbed me, my brother and my friend of our lives and our youth, and killed our joy. To this day, none of us had a family.
I had dreamed of becoming a lawyer to defend the oppressed, but my life was wasted due to an unforgiving law. Therefore, I ask the court’s justice to amend the law so that no one else is wronged”.
Outside the court, journalists asked him how he felt, and he replied, “I could have been Barack Obama. I could even go back to the young Ajamu … but I am not. They killed my youth, my soul, and everything I believe in.”
This ruling had a great impact on the public opinion, especially the statements made by Ajamu that shook the White House. In fact, President Barack Obama had ordered the formation of a body to review the American laws that lack merits of justice. In this case, they are the ones that depend on testimonies which are not based on solid evidence and clear documents. This review led to the release of dozens of American prisoners who were convicted on charges that were not based on evidence.
A week after Kwame got his freedom, President Obama visited him and his family at his home, and had a dinner prepared by the president’s wife in his honor.
Something similar happened In Britain, but this time the defendant’s innocence was proven too late. At the turn of the current millennium, British citizen George Kelly was executed after being convicted of murders that occurred during burglary. The police were under pressure to find the perpetrator(s), and what seemed to be a breakthrough came in the form of an anonymous tip (letter).
Based on this tip, Kelly, a petty criminal, was sentenced to death. However, several years later after Kelly was sent to the gallows, the original “anonymous” letter was found. It was written by a prisoner serving at the time who told the police about Kelly, prompting his immediate release. However, he was back in prison decades later, and confided to his cellmate that he was the one behind the murders for which Kelly was executed.
Immediately after these revelations, the British government began reviewing and amending the laws so that no one is wrongfully convicted on the grounds of suspicion.
The point behind narrating the aforementioned stories is that in most Arab countries, there are court rulings issued simply on suspicions or to satisfy certain influential people. Sometimes the police are involved in falsifying investigations and fabricating cases for various reasons.
There is no doubt that the two aforementioned stories should serve as an example of what a leader, who oversees the affairs of his people and his country, can do. If he feels that the people are being oppressed, he must impose justice in the way that the administration of the American White House or the British government rose up to the occasion to ensure justice for the oppressed.
Therefore, the rulers must come out of their ivory towers and listen to their people. They must determine how many innocent people have been executed, sentenced to life imprisonment, and even imprisoned solely based on suspicion because the balance of justice was based on a blind, soulless law.
We tell these stories in order for the leaders sitting in the ivory towers to read – if they actually read – and fear Allah, so that they can dust off their palaces from injustices, just as the palaces of Western countries rose up to lift injustice from the innocent, and to do them right because justice is the basis of rule.
By Ahmed Al-Jarallah
Editor-in-Chief, the Arab Times