Good Kids, Bad City: A Story of Race and Wrongful Conviction in America chronicles a Cleveland case of conviction and eventual exoneration. Author Kyle Swenson handles his involvement in the case–a young white man investigating the conviction of three older black men–with humility and clarity.
Perhaps because of his experience with long-form narrative journalism, Swenson’s book demonstrates a masterful ability to move his telescopic focus from the big picture of Cleveland’s history and criminal justice issues to the specific case at the center of his investigation. In 1975, three young black men–Wiley Bridgeman, Kwame Ajamu, and Rickey Jackson–were convicted for the robbery and violent murder of a white man in Cleveland. Results from Swenson’s investigation first appeared in the Cleveland Scene in 2011. Finally, in 2014, all three men were exonerated, thanks to the continued efforts of Swenson and others.
The case is well known, but Swenson takes care not to highlight that its fame is due the fact that Rickey Jackson served the greatest number of years (39) by a person who was eventually exonerated. To focus on that point, Swenson asserts, is to focus on the wrong thing entirely.
He argues that zeroing in on the length of Jackson’s wrongful imprisonment, the approach favored by the media at the time, makes the wrongful conviction seem like an exception. And that, he effectively demonstrates, is far from true.
Thanks to the work of a variety of organizations and people (including many students), we do have some statistics on the number of people exonerated. But Swenson makes a compelling case that such statistics signify only what we know. Because of long-entrenched and systemic policies, he insists, countless more cases should be included in those figures. Wrongful convictions, according to Swenson, are rarely accidental.
He contends, for instance, that it was not an accident that just one day after Jackson walked free, Tamir Rice was killed by a Cleveland police officer. Problems with the Cleveland police force did not begin with the 1975 case investigated by Swenson, nor did they end with the death of Tamir Rice. In fact, the Cleveland Police Union recently made known its intention to have the officer who killed Rice reinstated.
Good Kids, Bad City will be the subject of an upcoming book club discussion at the City Club of Cleveland. Swenson appeared at the City Club in February, a conversation moderated by Raymond Strickland of WKYC. The enthusiasm of his diverse audience convinced Patty Shlonsky (City Club board member) and Julia Wang (Marketing and Outreach Coordinator) to select the book for the club’s March book discussion.
According to Wang, the positive response to Swenson’s February appearance, together with the momentum generated by the third season of the podcast Serial (which put Cleveland’s criminal justice system in the spotlight), made Good Kids, Bad City a nearly ideal choice. Wang hopes that the book provides “the participants with a chance to learn more about our city and its struggles for criminal justice reform.”
As a launching pad for discussing criminal justice and injustice, Good Kids, Bad City is reminiscent of James Forman Jr.’s Locking Up Our Own. Discussion participants will find themselves looking in a stark and essential mirror. To do so would be one step toward bringing Cleveland closer to criminal justice reform. I’ll be there on March 26. I hope to see you.