An empathetic report on the longest wrongful incarceration in the history of the United States to conclude with exoneration.
In his debut book, an expansion of his popular Cleveland Scene feature, Washington Post journalist Swenson weaves together the dramatic details of a 1975 incident in Cleveland in which three black men were falsely accused and convicted of the murder of Harry Franks, a white man, outside of a convenience store. The author begins with a sweeping history of Cleveland, especially the 1960s and '70s, when increasing racial tensions and unrest haunted the region alongside rampant discrimination, urban infrastructural decay, and the crack epidemic that ushered in and decimated the city in the 1980s. Swenson introduces us to Kwame Ajamu, Wiley Bridgeman, and Rickey Jackson, boys for whom Cleveland had become their playground and true home. The author's portraits of the boys are carefully and lucidly drawn, as he captures their maturation into young men who were in the wrong place when Franks was fatally shot. At their trial, the prime witness, a 12-year-old neighborhood boy named Edward Vernon, testified against them, and all were charged with the murder despite a glaring absence of physical evidentiary support. Swenson also delivers a vital portrait of Vernon's adult life, plagued by drug abuse and unhappiness, and of his shocking retraction just as Bridgeman was paroled after 27 years in prison. Compelling and heartfelt, the author's cinematic chronicle moves swiftly through these events, and embedded in this tale of gross criminal injustice is the frustrating history and scarred legacy of Cleveland, a city harboring a "deepening woe" and mired in political corruption, racial conflict, and unbridled crime. Through in-person interviews and extensive, diligent research, Swenson brings this travesty of justice into impressive, necessary focus.
In this sharply written, emotionally resonant rendering, the author makes crystal-clear the heartbreaking realities of wrongful imprisonment, race, and the many flaws of the American criminal justice system.
In his vivid, extensively researched debut, Washington Post reporter Swenson uncovers the story of the longest wrongful imprisonment in U.S. history to end in exoneration. Three young black men—Wiley Bridgeman, Kwame Ajamu (then Ronnie Bridgeman), and Rickey Jackson—were convicted of the 1975 robbery and murder of a white salesman outside a Cleveland convenience store. Despite a glaring lack of physical evidence and a witness who testified they weren’t the perpetrators, the prosecution claimed they were based solely on the testimony of 12-year-old Edward Vernon. Thirty-nine years later, Vernon recanted his coerced testimony and the men were released. With empathy, Swenson follows the three convicted men from their adolescence in a close-knit Cleveland neighborhood through the ways they handled their time in prison and their freedom. His equally sympathetic portrait of Vernon chronicles decades of substance abuse and addiction caused, in part, by guilt. Arguing this travesty of justice was rooted in the city’s “larger failure,” Swenson highlights the high crime rate, decaying infrastructure, race riots, and unchecked police corruption that plagued Cleveland during the 1960s and ’70s, in addition to exploring the broader failures of the “war on crime” and the “war on drugs.” Cinematically written, this powerful tragedy of racial injustice and urban dysfunction will make readers question the idea that America can promise “justice for all.” Agent: David Patterson, Stuart Krichevsky Agency. (Feb.)
"A compelling, beautifully written book that goes well beyond that initial journalistic probe into a grave injustice ... A powerful addition to the growing literature on the failures of America’s criminal justice system. It is also a gripping, novelistic account of what happened to the three defendants and their lone accuser after the convictions, a frank confession of the methods and emotions of an obsessed reporter, and a poignant meditation on the dark side of Cleveland."--Mark Whitaker, The Washington Post
"It's the story of a grave injustice, whose long-overdue correction delivers a strong emotional punch when it finally arrives."Alec MacGillis, The New York Times Book Review
"Investigative journalist Swenson turns his expertise towards uncovering the truth about howand whythree African-American men were charged, convicted and sent to prison for decades for a murder they didn’t commit. This incredible true story about the three men’s eventual exonerations lays bare the biases of a very broken justice system." Parade.com
"[A] vivid, extensively researched debut...Cinematically written, this powerful tragedy of racial injustice and urban dysfunction will make readers question the idea that America can promise 'justice for all.'" Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Compelling and heartfelt...In this sharply written, emotionally resonant rendering, the author makes crystal-clear the heartbreaking realities of wrongful imprisonment, race, and the many flaws of the American criminal justice system." Kirkus Reviews
"With dramatic, cinematic detail, Swenson connects this to a larger problem by showing how federal policies on both the war on drugs and the war on crime have devastated targeted communities in Cleveland and across the country, and have resulted in one of the most overburdened and draconian justice systems in the western world. Though small reforms and cosmetic changes may be slowly lifting the burden of history, this book questions the very nature of the justice systemand whom it benefits."--BookPage
"Good Kids, Bad City is a searing examination of a wrongful conviction case made all the more outrageousand thus, necessary readingin the context of an incisive examination of Cleveland, and how criminal justice failures are a microcosm of the city's problems. With heart and brio, Kyle Swenson illuminates the plight of three men done cruelly wrong for far too many decades, and the work required to ensure this cannot keep happening." Sarah Weinman, author of The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World
“With novelistic storytelling, Swenson explores long-standing issues in Cleveland's police department and justice system, outlining other wrongful convictions and the rise of DNA evidence in trials. With clear current relevance, Good Kids, Bad City is essential for readers of U.S. history, law, and culture." Booklist
“A blistering indictment of the justice system and a hard-boiled portrait of post-industrial America, Good Kids, Bad City lays out the constellation of institutional failures that put three innocent men behind bars for decades. Kyle Swenson captures the pain, the frustration, and the hopes of these men with sensitivity and heart, while addressing his native Cleveland with the tough love of a local who hasn't yet given up on his town.” Albert Samaha, author of Never Ran, Never Will
“Kyle Swenson is a marvelous reporter with an equally keen eye for small human moments and sweeping civic history. Good Kids, Bad City tells a new Midwestern history and examines the brutality of our justice system, but above all I will remember the peoplethe livesthat Swenson depicts in all their glorious intimacy. This book sings." John Lingan, author of Homeplace: A Southern Town, a Country Legend, and the Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-Tonk
"Kyle Swenson lays bare the full spectrum of American tragedy: from the volatile streets of 1970s Cleveland to the cold machinations of the city’s justice system to the sparks of hope and outrage that refuse to dim in the hearts of those railroaded by that system’s blatant racism. Good Kids, Bad City is relentless reporting and impactful storytelling at its best." Joshua Wheeler, author of Acid West
“Good Kids, Bad City got its grimy Rust Belt hooks in me from the opening line and never let me go. It's a page-whizzing narrative, but it's also a critical work of history, an investigative triumph, and a gorgeously rendered portrait of innocent men who deserved so much more from their city and their government.” Joe Tone, author of Bones: Brothers, Horses, Cartels, and the Borderland Dream
After a 1975 murder-homicide of a white man in Cleveland, award-winning journalist Swenson follows Kwame Ajamu, Ricky Jackson, and Wiley Bridgman—three young black men wrongfully arrested, tried, convicted, and incarcerated for the crime. The author deftly develops a multilayered story of lives unjustly stolen amid the circumstances and experiences of a postindustrial city's struggles with an ugly past of racial anger and distrust. His focus also includes a critique of fatal errors that can significantly impact criminal prosecutions, from misguided detectives to belligerent prosecutors to false testimony by experts, all of which can lead to wrongful convictions. He shows how numbers-driven, procedure-geared litigation has furthered a culture favoring speed over accuracy, leading innocent people to be incarcerated at disproportionate rates and spawning a nationwide innocence movement to battle wrongful convictions. Lastly, the author calls for the reform of systemic practices, such as DNA exonerations. VERDICT Swenson's exposé lays bare the criminal justice system's failures, along with the politicization that the war on crime and war on drugs promoted. A must-read.—Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State Univ., Tempe