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‘Everything is Different … Your Family Members You Don’t Know’: Cleveland Man Labeled a ‘Monster’ After Being Jailed for Almost Three Decades for a Murder He Didn’t Commit Gets Exonerated

An Ohio man wrongly imprisoned for a murder crime he did not commit has been exonerated of the crime he was convicted of. Now the man will receive over a million dollars in reparations for the three decades he spent behind bars.

On Monday, July 11, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Kathleen Sutula declared Charles Jackson should have never been incarcerated for the April 1991 killing of Joe Travis and the attempted murder of Ronald Lacey in an apartment building on Othello Avenue in Cleveland, Cleveland.com reported.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost’s office and Jackson’s lawyers from the law firm of Friedman, Gilbert, and Gerhardstein jointly filed a motion agreeing that Jackson was wrongfully imprisoned and presented it to the court. 

Judge Sutula remarked when she announced her decision, “I don’t think there is any judge that would ever want to imprison an innocent person. Since [the judge that presided over Jackson’s 1991 conviction] is not here to say he’s sorry, I’ll say it for him.”

Jackson spent half of his life behind bars for a murder he has always maintained he never committed.

“I was 27 when I went to jail. When I came home I was 54 and my daughter was 27 so I was gone a long time,” Jackson said, according to Cleveland19.com. “Everything is different, people change, and even your family members you don’t know people. You’re just a stranger now, and it’s just hard.”

Once the declaration was made, the Ohio Court of Claims will pay the man approximately $52,000 per year he was locked up, totaling roughly $1,456,000. 

While the money will help Jackson provide support to his loved ones, he said it will never compensate for the years lost while he was in prison for murder.

Jackson stated, “I’m relieved,” News 5 Cleveland reported. “All these years to be labeled as a monster and to live through that and to feel shame and humiliation and now to be totally exonerated, it feels good.” 

“I don’t think [the state] could ever make it right. But compensation is a good start immediately to get my life going and to take care of my family and to move on and put this behind me.”

The stain of being in prison was an embarrassment to Jackson, particularly after his mother died while he was still incarcerated. 

“I can’t even explain the humiliation I felt every time somebody called my name ‘inmate,’ ‘prisoner,’ read the charge ‘murderer,’” Jackson shared.

Nicknamed by his family as “Sweetman,” because of his gentle disposition, he contends that prison changed him for the worse.

“I had become a product of my environment,” Jackson said. “I was turning into a monster.”

Jackson is suing various parties, claiming they willfully conspired to have him incarcerated, ignoring or lying about the facts surrounding the Travis killing.

Court records show that a witness told law enforcement that Travis’ shooter drove a 1978 or ’79 brown or maroon Monte Carlo and hung out in the neighborhood. Officers found a car that resembled the description the witness gave them and stopped the driver, asking if he had drugs on him. He did not, but the detectives still took a picture of the motorist, who would later be identified as Jackson, for their records. 

With this picture, the detectives circled back to the witness and asked if this man was the shooter. The witness said it was and within weeks, Jackson was arrested. 

“I feel the officers and the police whoever involved with me being wrongfully convicted felt like I wasn’t worth being in the streets,” Jackson remarked. “Whatever they thought I was doing they must have thought I didn’t matter.”

In 2021, Jackson filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Cleveland, the police detectives associated with the 1991 case, and an assistant Cuyahoga County prosecutor who redacted several pages of exculpatory police reports after receiving a request from Ohio Innocence Project attorneys, regarding his conviction.

Sarah Gelsomino, one of Jackson’s attorneys, said, “Cleveland murder detectives hid evidence, fabricated evidence, and hid witness statements that were completely exculpatory.”

“When police and prosecutors don’t do justice … when they don’t pursue justice … when they intentionally withhold evidence and put the wrong people behind bars,” she continued. “Everyone suffers. The ripple effects of that go on and on and on for decades.”

In 2016, the Innocence Project made a formal request to the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s office to see a copy of Jackson’s case file.

The file should have included details of his 1991 arrest, the charges, and the only evidence used against him: the statements from Lacey and a female drug dealer peddling drugs out of the apartment building where the shooting occurred. 

Court records show what the lawyers received from the prosecution was a heavily redacted file. 

The advocacy group also requested documents from the Cleveland police. The city provided the records over a year later. The lawyers discovered after reviewing those records that the department hid multiple reports where the female star witness originally told officers she didn’t see the shooting or the shooter, but somehow her story changed to fit what the department needed for a conviction.

The Innocence Project was able to highlight improprieties in the Cleveland Police Department’s investigation. One piece of evidence showed where detectives wrote that they only presented pictures of Jackson when interrogating Lacey about the man who allegedly tried to kill him.

One of the two photographs was an old still taken of Jackson from one detective’s personal 35mm camera from a previous arrest.

The records showed that Detective William Nolan not only lied but fabricated evidence during his pretrial testimony, saying that he and Detective Frank Gedeon showed Lace a full photo lineup of potential suspects and Lacey picked Jackson from that lot. 

At the time, according to the records, Judge Carl Character, who was presiding over the initial case, impeded the hearing because neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys had copies of the photographs supposedly used by Nolan.

The next day Nolan returned to court with pictures of five different people to satisfy his mendacious claim.

Another piece of evidence suppressed by the police was an affidavit signed by Thomas Salvano, a potential witness to the killing who was already in jail on unrelated charges. Legal reps for Jackson discovered a report stating detectives located Salvano in jail, came to him, and attempted to pressure him into saying he saw Jackson kill the deceased. Salvano was also shown Jackson’s photograph, the same one used with Lacey.

Salvano never made it to trial because he told the detectives Jackson was not the shooter.

Based solely on the carefully curated aforementioned evidence, Jackson was convicted by a jury based on the female witness and Lacey’s testimony and was sentenced to life in prison. The new evidence is at the center of his federal case in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio.

Jackson’s team filed a motion to Sutula requesting she overturn the conviction and grant their client a new trial. 

This move went unopposed by Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley’s office and in November 2018, the judge ordered a new trial.

For the first time in 27 years, six months, and 20 days, Jackson was freed from the custody of the state and allowed to go home to his family. The next year, the prosecutor’s office dropped all charges against Jackson.

The Ohio Innocence Project said that cases like Jackson’s happen all the time, particularly with their Black clients, which make up the majority of their exonerees. According to their data, innocent Black people are almost seven times more likely to be charged and convicted of murder than their white peers who are innocent.

Pierce Reed with the Ohio Innocence Project believes the Jackson case, like many others, is rooted in racially biased policing.

He said, “Regardless of the debate about why there is such a disproportionate impact among communities of color by the criminal justice system there’s definitely a disproportionate impact.”

For Jackson, the last three years and his new exoneration opens up new possibilities and new challenges for him. He has to acclimate to life in the 21st century. Still, he is grateful.

“I’m home and that’s the most important thing to me and I know if I can make it and survive in prison then I got to be alright out here, but it’s hard,” he states. 

“I just figured it took me a long time to get used to being in jail, so I guess it’s going to take me some time to get used to being out here now.”

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