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Cleveland man who spent decades behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit speaks out against the death penalty

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Posted at 10:23 PM, Oct 05, 2022

CLEVELAND — A Cleveland man who was sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit is making good on his vow to end the death penalty in the United States.

Kwame Ajamu, formerly known as Ronnie Bridgeman, spends a lot of his time speaking about his past.

“On my 18th birthday, I sat in my death row cell in a little, bitty bunk and wondered why God had done this to me,” he told an audience at John Carroll University, Wednesday evening.

In 1975 Ajamu was accused, along with two other men, of robbing and murdering a man outside a convenience store on Cleveland’s east side. He was 17-years-old. The three men were found guilty and sentenced to death.

“To be in prison, period, is very bad for any human being, but to be in prison innocent is even worse,” he said.

After 28 years behind bars Ajamu was released on parole in 2003. He was exonerated in 2014 after an eye witness recanted his statement. In 2020, he and his codefendants reached

an $18 million dollar settlement with the city of Cleveland.

Since 2014, when he was exonerated, he has used his voice to speak out against capital punishment. He joined the group Witness to Innocence.

“We are comprised of all former-death row exonerees. Each and every one of us has been wrongfully sentenced to die and exonerated,” he said.

Witness to Innocence has partnered with Ohioans to Stop Executions and No Death Penalty Ohio to put on the Ohio Innocence Tour, a speaking tour traveling throughout the state to educate people about the death penalty.

Jennifer Pryor works with Ohioans to Stop Executions. She said it is stories like Ajamu’s that will urge people to act and call their legislators to support House Bill 183 and Senate Bill 103, both abolish the death penalty in Ohio.

“Innocence is represented on death row and these are some of the exonerees that have experienced death row and have had nothing to do with the crimes they were accused of,” she said.

While Ohio hasn’t executed a prisoner in about 4 years, it still is an option for prosecutors to pursue. There are currently 134 inmates on death row in the state.

The ACLU of Ohio and Ohioans to Stop Executions found that although people of color make up 15% of Ohio’s population, they make up of 56% of the state’s death row.

The same study by ACLU found Death penalty trials cost taxpayers as much as $16 million per case.

“We live in a society that allows very rich people who are guilty to be treated better than innocent people without money,” said Pryor.