'The Washington Post' reporter discusses his book, 'Good Kids, Bad City'
Alt-weekly newspapers can tell you about the best burgers in town. They can give you a schedule of upcoming concerts and exhibit openings. They can tell you whether the latest blockbuster movie is any good.
They can also expose white nationalists and alleged sexual assaulters. And they can lead to the exoneration of the wrongfully imprisoned.
The latter applies to Kyle Swenson’s experience at his previous job writing for Cleveland Scene. He wrote a feature in 2011 about Wiley Bridgeman, Kwame Ajamu and Rickey Jackson — three African-American men convicted of murder in the 1970s. The prosecution relied on the testimony of a white youth, Ed Vernon.
“The reporting showed clearly that three innocent men had been shipped to death row based on the improbable and inconsistent testimony of the then-12-year-old,” Swenson wrote in a follow-up piece for Cleveland Scene. (The men were later commuted to life imprisonment.)
Two years after the story ran, Vernon — then in his 50s and plagued by illness — recanted his testimony. In 2014, Bridgeman, Ajamu and Jackson were exonerated. Ajamu had been paroled in 2003; the others were released after nearly 40 years of imprisonment.
“It was amazing to see them walk free,” said Swenson, now a reporter at The Washington Post. “It was this media circus. And I remember getting a little ticked off because I felt like a lot of questions people in the media were asking were like, ‘What's your first meal going to be?’ … We weren't using the opportunity to look back at what happened and how this happened.”
Swenson delves into those questions in his book, Good Kids, Bad City, released Feb. 12. He will visit the King Arts Complex to discuss the book with U.S. District Judge Algenon L. Marbley on Thursday, Feb. 21.
“I wanted to look at this case, and then I also wanted to look at what were the kind of social and political pressures that would create an environment where something like this could happen,” Swenson said. “It was a lot of reading [and] a lot of history, followed up by a lot of interviews.”
One of his subjects was Vernon, who shared compelling, introspective details about his experience. “I learned so much about the way that he had, as a child, internalized the fear and anxiety attached to this case,” Swenson said. “He later developed an addiction problem, and he was very clear that thinking about this case is one of those triggers of his addiction.”
Coincidentally, season three of the Serial investigative journalism podcast explores the problems within the Cleveland justice system. It was released after Swenson completed his book, and he even conversed with one of the reporters.
“I think they complement each other really well,” he said.
Even after grappling with the way the system failed Bridgeman, Ajamu and Jackson, Swenson said he has hope.
“I think now people are more willing to understand that the criminal justice system screws up,” he said. “And I think the more that people accept that reality is a great sign for us changing it in the future.”