These type stories are uncomfortable to read. Most of the time we skim the highlights and move on to events that are easier to digest. Those of us who are not lawbreakers, with the exception of the occasional traffic offense, are appreciative of our law enforcement, prosecutors, judges and jurors who work tirelessly to keep criminals off the streets. What is painful to hear is that our justice system is not perfect. Sometimes mistakes are made, terrible mistakes.
Let me introduce you to Ricky Jackson. Ricky Jackson, 57, has been behind bars since 1975. He was released from prison last week. Allow me to share a few details from Jackson’s story. Harold Franks was a money order collector in Cleveland, Ohio. On May 19th, 1975 he was murdered in a gruesome way. He was beaten by two men, then had acid thrown on him, then shot twice with a .38 caliber handgun. Harold Franks was murdered in a heinous manner.
A 12-year-old named Eddie Vernon came forward telling police he had seen Ricky Jackson along with Wiley and Ronnie Bridgeman murder Harold Franks. These men were convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Jackson’s death sentence was vacated because of a paperwork error. The Bridgemans had their death sentences abolished when Ohio ruled the death sentence unconstitutional in 1978.
The final part of this story is amazing. Mr. Jackson was given a new trial through the works of the Ohio Innocence Project. During the trial preparation Eddie Vernon, now 53, confessed he lied about seeing the murder. He now says friends and the police gave him the information to share as if he were a witness. Mr. Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman were released based on Vernon’s recantation. Ronnie Bridgeman had previously been paroled.
Here are some thoughts on the Ricky Jackson episode.
1. There is a man who is still dead and was murdered in a heinous way. Our sympathy for Ricky Jackson’s false imprisonment should not replace our anger over this murder. Genesis 9:6 teaches the death sentence for murder based on the fact that man is made in the image of God. Harold Franks, made in the image of God, was murdered. We need to pray for his family members that survive until today. Can you imagine the confusion they must have?
2. We should pray for Ricky Jackson. He went into prison as an 18-year-old. The world he now has been turned loose in has completely changed. For certain, he has not been in isolation for 39 years and has some knowledge of what is going on in the world. However, I am sure he still thinks of stores, homes and other landmarks in the neighborhood from his youth that will be gone as he walks those streets for the first time in 39 years. He has an incredible amount of adjusting and adaptation he must go through. We need to pray that he can be successful as a citizen, put together some sense of normalcy in life and above all else that he does not become bitter. He says now he does not blame Vernon for lying for at the time Vernon was only a kid.
3. Could there be some like Ricky Jackson who are imprisoned by God’s design? I was discussing Joseph with a church member just last week when he asked if I thought there are some like Joseph who are imprisoned today by God’s divine plan? In 25 years of pastoring I have never been asked that question. God certainly is not responsible for any murder or evil. However, with His foreknowledge He may orchestrate having a person in prison for the purpose of completing His divine plans. Joseph was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. Joseph went from being a slave in Egypt to the #2 man in the entire Egyptian Empire and was able to save his family during a famine. In Genesis 50:20 Joseph having revealed himself to his brothers and following his father’s death makes this great statement, “You meant it for evil but God meant it for good.” Could some innocent people today, like Ricky Jackson, be in prison as part of God’s divine plan?
4. I imagine the guilt that Eddie Vernon carries with him is tremendous. We should offer prayers for Vernon for he is going to have difficulty in dealing with his guilt. His lie cost a man 39 years in prison. I suspect that each one of has hurt or wronged someone in our lives. I know in my life I have hurt a few people. I John 1:9 gives us this great promise, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” In most instances the ones that I honestly hurt I have attempted to make things right or remarkably they have tried to make things right with me. However, there are times when out of the blue the rush of guilt floods my soul that is hard to describe. Some say that is not of God for He has forgiven. It may not be of God but it sure does humble you. All of us have lived with moments of guilt and regret, can you imagine the feelings Eddie Vernon is carrying? His wounds are self-inflicted but we still can sympathize for him.
5. Finally, I have never understood why the designers of the American justice system feel they are more wise than God. Read Deuteronomy 19:15, “One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” This concept is found in the New Testament concerning church discipline. Read Matthew 18:15, 16, “And if your brother sins , go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that BY THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES EVERY FACT MAY BE CONFIRMED.” This concept is seen again in I Timothy 6:19 about bringing accusations against an elder (pastor), “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses.”
Two or three witnesses does not guarantee a fair trial but it gives a better assurance than just one. People’s eyes play tricks on them; their minds imagine things that are not real. In the worst cases someone may try to ruin another and give false testimony. These are a few reasons for requiring a minimum of two witnesses. Anyway, I still think God’s way is the best way. There is not a single winner in the Ricky Jackson story.
By the way, don’t read this and conclude I am against the death penalty. In a Christian Ethics class in seminary I had to write a position paper on capital punishment. My paper was in defense of capital punishment. My position has not changed. I may pull that paper out soon and share some thoughts on capital punishment.