“One of the things about ordinary people is that they do lead extraordinary lives,” said Pierce Reed, policy coordinator of the Ohio Innocence Project.
Reed was specifically referencing the extraordinary lives of Eugene Johnson, Derrick Wheatt and Laurese Glover. These men, known as the East Cleveland Three, were wrongfully imprisoned in 1995 for two decades, only to be released in 2015. The three men recounted their story of injustice while sitting in the Athena Cinema in Athens, Ohio, on Feb. 27.
Their story begins with the trio of then teenagers driving around the East side of Cleveland. Just around the corner from home, the boys were waiting at a stop sign when they heard the abrupt noise of gunshots. Glover, the driver, hit the gas and drove off out of instinct, leaving a 14-year-old witness with the image of his car speeding off.
Later that evening, Wheatt and Glover were swarmed by cop cars who brought them to the police station. Glover remembers being questioned for hours.
“They just kept badgering me with [questions] like, ‘where were you at 5:50 p.m.?’ and I honestly didn’t know. They just kept asking that question over and over again,” Glover said. “I told them everything that happened that day, everything we saw and what we did. Then [the officer] told me that Derrick was saying something different. They went from that to saying that they ‘had 15 eyewitnesses that put you guys at the scene that said they saw you murder Clifton Hudson.”
While police were giving Glover this narrative, they were also telling Wheatt and Johnson false information. Johnson was arrested a day after Wheatt and Glover.
This method of manipulation was affirmed in the 1969 Frazier v. Cupp Supreme Court case, which allows for deceptive interrogation tactics.
“I was at the police station when [the officers] were playing the mind-game part. They told me Laurese and Derrick had different stories. [The police] were absolutely telling a lie to us, because we didn’t shoot anybody,” Johnson said.
After a month in jail and several months leading up to the trial, the boys were confident that they would be released.
“Back then, I was thinking, ‘I know I’m innocent, the jury will believe I’m innocent,’ but looking back now, it doesn’t work like that,” Johnson said. “Looking back now, the trial was a kangaroo court. So much went on and it was a sham process.”
The men remember the jury being majority white, with only two African American people–one of whom was an alternate.
On Jan. 18, 1996, the day of the trial, the men remember everything becoming seemingly unreal when the guilty verdict came in.
“I remember looking back and seeing several family members crying. My brother was so devastated that he had to be put into a holding cell until he could calm down,” Wheatt said.
Glover recounted a similar moment, saying that the verdict didn’t register until later. He recalls having no feeling when the judge read “guilty. 15-years-to-life.”
Johnson, the one who allegedly committed the murder, was given 18 years-to-life and placed in solitary confinement on the anniversary of the murder every year.
Nearly two decades later, the Ohio Innocence Project picked up the case of the three men.
The Ohio Innocence Project works through the University of Cincinnati College of Law to help exonerate wrongfully convicted people. The Ohio Innocence Project brought forward more witnesses to the case and through the Brady v Maryland Supreme Court case.
Brady v. Maryland, established in 1963, said that prosecution must turn over all evidence that could exonerate the defendant.
Pierce Reed and the three men have been touring Ohio so that people can hear about the injustices that occur in the judiciary system.
After being exonerated, the men are now paid $50,000 a year for every year they were wrongfully imprisoned. For the East Cleveland Three, however, no amount of money can make up for the lost years.
A question was raised from an audience member about how the men have been able to heal after their exoneration. The unanimous answer was simply faith and hope.
Wheatt, Glover and Johnson all agreed that strong faith and a strong support system was key to keeping hope throughout the past decades, and even now as they continue to move forward.
Today, the men are all in strong relationships with their significant others. Wheatt has a son of his own with his wife, who was formerly his junior high school sweetheart. The women were all brought on stage at the end of the event, a strong display of the support that the three have received to this day.
“You never know how strong you are until strong is your only option,” Johnson concluded.