After graduation, many Kenyon students leave the Hill in search of an opportunity to correct injustice and make positive social change. In Kyle Swenson’s ’07 case, the opportunity came to him.
Swenson turned that opportunity — a phone call from then-53-year old Kwame Ajamu — into an in-depth wrongful imprisonment investigation, then an article, which last month became a book: Good Kids, Bad City.
Swenson was working as a reporter in his native Cleveland in 2011 when Ajamu contacted him. Ajamu was one of three innocent African-American men convicted for the 1975 murder of Harry Franks, who was white. His brother, Wiley Bridgeman and childhood friend Rickey Jackson were still imprisoned — originally, all three were on Death Row.
Swenson’s investigation revealed wild discrepancies and countless holes in the testimony that put Ajamu in prison. The witness, who later admitted to the lie, was 12 years old at the time of the murder; Ajamu was just 17. The Cleveland Scene article that Swenson wrote helped free Bridgeman and Jackson, making their case the longest wrongful imprisonment ever to end in exoneration. Swenson chronicled their story, his work and the troubling history of criminal injustice in Cleveland in Good Kids, Bad City.
In the book, Swenson discusses the social context that he thinks contributed to the 1975 verdict: cynicism in the police department and fear in the African-American community. “It was an incredibly fraught time,” he said. “A lot of the optimism of the Civil Rights Movement [had] changed, or at least soured … If you were an African-American in Cleveland, you were terrified of the police.”
Now, Swenson notes, little has changed: “That kind of cynicism and antagonism has really become baked into a lot of American policing.”
The work made Swenson more cynical, too. When the Cleveland Scene first published his article, it garnered little reaction. He felt as if he had let Ajamu, Bridgeman and Jackson down. Upset with the apathy in Cleveland, he moved away. Eventually, though, the Ohio Innocence Project took up the case, and the article’s impact grew. All three men were exonerated by 2014 after a combined 106 years in prison.
Though he now lives in Washington, D.C., Swenson credits his formative years in Cleveland for some of his success. He held a summer internship at a business magazine in the city, which was his first employer after graduation. At Kenyon, he majored in English and took classes from professors Perry Lentz, P. F. Kluge and Fred Baumann. While working on his book, he recalled themes from PSCI 101Y: The Quest for Justice.
However, Swenson saw the limitations of the Kenyon bubble. “Being an English major, you read all of these great books, you have a lot of this intellectual conversation. But I definitely remember feeling, particularly towards the end of my time in college, that a lot of those conversations seemed very separated [from] what was actually going on in American cities in terms of actual issues of criminal justice or poverty or race or things like that,” he said.
Outside his alma mater, Swenson’s story has made national news. In February, he appeared with Ajamu and Jackson on the TODAY Show to promote his book. He counts the men as close friends; they were both at his wedding.
“They’re a huge part of my life now. And it’s very important to keep that distance between subject and journalist. But at the same time, I don’t think you can keep it clinical when … your lives are so entwined,” Swenson said. “I think it’s important to acknowledge that these are relationships that have changed my life and that I’ll have ’til the end, hopefully.”