Dead at 23: The Tragedy of Ronald Freedom

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Ronald Franklin. All Photos by Richard Ross

“I’m free today, Richard. I’m breathing free air.”

That was three years ago. My friend Ronald Franklin had finally been released. Incarcerated since he was 13—and now, at 20, he was free.

The deck was stacked against Ronald, but a kid of such talent and enthusiasm had a shot. He started calling himself Ronald Freedom. He got a job parking cars at the airport and was living with his mother Carla Brinson — a 30-year crack addict now recovered.

But he was from Liberty City in Miami, and the odds are against you when you are born there. This is the setting for “Moonlight.” The film’s portrayal is accurate.

Carla had said — more than once —”I am almost glad Ronnie is in prison because out here, on the streets, he would be dead.”

They found Ronnie Franklin at 8:30 a.m. on April 1, a sunny, hot Florida Saturday. He had been in a lake for several days. Across the street from Home Depot, behind Target, CVS Pharmacy, Steak ‘n Shake, Starbucks, The Dollar Store—all the signs of American normalcy—was Davie Lake, where he was found floating.

Ronald Franklin

Gale Lewis, a senior supervising attorney for Miami Dade Public Defenders, a friend of Ronnie’s, mentioned she was having trouble getting calls returned from Detective Eddy Velazquez of the Davie Police Department, who was investigating the case.

After two weeks of calling and emailing the police department with no response, I finally got on a plane and went to Broward County, Florida.

[My efforts to see] the elusive Detective Velazquez  got the constant response —”He’s not here” — until finally, a sergeant told me that “unless you are family we don’t inform you about open cases.”

“Couldn’t you call and say exactly that?” I asked the sergeant. “After two weeks, is there any sense of courtesy to communicate?”

“It is an open investigation and our policy dictates we don’t talk about it. I am sure you understand. If it is an investigation, we have to have the medical examiner’s report. If there is the possibility it is a homicide, we don’t want to give information that might assist a suspect or anyone involved in the case.”

“Is it a homicide?”

“It is an open case and we can’t discuss it. I am sure you understand.”

“Why won’t you return the calls and email of the public defender?”

“We certainly don’t talk to any attorneys. As you can understand, we always have an adversarial position with them — they may be defending someone we are trying to bring a case against. I am sure you understand.”

I returned to California, and spoke to Gale, who was even more frustrated that there was no attempt to return a call.

“That’s garbage,” she said. “I speak with law enforcement all the time. What if I had information that is pertinent to the case? I knew Ronnie since he was 13. To not return a call and see if there is relevance to the case is unproductive and nothing that I have seen in many years of working with the public defender.”

‘Going Good’

When he was finally released, there were rough restarts for Ronald. You simply don’t spend all your teenage years incarcerated and walk out with the skills you need to survive in any institution, even college.

Florida detention and DOC [Department of Corrections] is far from perfect in helping kids gain skills, and returning to the same neighborhood presented problems.

Ronnie tried to keep his beats and his music going. He finally got a job working at Home Depot. He enrolled in a computer class. We bought him a laptop to help.

“It’s all good, Richard.” This was the message of the occasional calls.

Ronnie was fixated on his phone, as he had had nothing like it for the past seven years. It would ring, vibrate and light up on a regular basis. I had dinner with Ronnie a few months earlier at a nice restaurant in Miami.

**He ordered steak well done … because he heard someone do the same, but he wasn’t sure what it meant. His exposure to the world beyond Liberty City was limited, and in prison you take what’s given to you rather than order your preference.

There were cracks in the façade of stability. Ronnie’s mother and his sister had moved to “the Dakotas or somewhere like that.” But he said it was all good because there was a month left on the lease.

Later, I asked where he was staying.

“Around.”

I worked with Gale, his defense attorney, to try to get him housing. There was something specific for young men like him in Miami, but each time I inquired if he had gone there was an answer like, “I can’t take time off from work to meet with them.”

He was still staying “around.” Something was off.

No Answers But Silence

[My search for answers in Miami continued.]

I called the police chief’s office. After being quizzed as to why I was asking, I was told I would get a call from one of three public information officers. An hour later I received a call, again inquiring who I was and why I wanted the information.

I explained the history of myself, Ronnie, the public defender, Ronnie’s mother. Little penetrated.

Ronald in juvenile hall.

We live in a period when law enforcement, media and the general public have a very difficult road to navigate. This is far from when my dad was a cop in New York. My history was walking with my uniformed father, who knew everyone and was greeted with a smile.

We live in a different world. How much of it is of the making of a department that responds to every and all inquiry with silence? Communication is the first tool that has to be employed to create any trust.

The Faces of the “Expired”

I spoke to Carla, Ronnie’s mom, who now lives in Fargo, North Dakota. Her husband Junior identified the body, too decomposed for her to see.

“It don’t make sense, Richard,” she said. “They told me it looked like an accidental drowning, but his car was three or four miles away. He never used any drugs. There was a security camera on all the time at this manmade lake. The water never went up past my calf. It was only a foot or so deep. It don’t make sense and they won’t tell me more about it.”

When kids are released with ankle monitors from Miami Dade, they are shown a wall of 50 photocopies of faces with the word “EXPIRED” handwritten across the page. The images are shown to reinforce the consequences of deviating. Newly released young men view the “graduation” wall of their friends.

These were kids whose lives were extinguished within two years after being released from this institution. New kids are told that if they fall in with the same crowd that they were with upon entering juvie, their name and face would join this wall.

There is no understanding that the kids on the wall had not failed and lost their lives as a consequence. It is us and our institutions that have failed these kids.

This is a portrait of America that can’t be ignored. This can’t go unanswered.

The outcomes of these kids’ lives are predetermined by the ZIP codes of their birth.

I thought Ronnie was different. I thought he had caught a break and had the talent and ability to at least survive.

But Liberty City and the world Ronnie lived in took its ultimate toll. Ronald’s death goes down as another statistic. Another young black man from the urban ghetto — who had made his start in a broken home — evolved to years in juvie, then prison, parole and finally a shallow pond.

With no one to care, no one to report him missing. Alone.

My friend Ronnie. No longer breathing free air. Someone cries for you.

Richard Ross is a photographer, researcher and art professor based in Santa Barbara, California. His most recent work, the “In Justice” series of books, turns a lens on the placement and treatment of American juveniles. The essay above is a slightly abridged version of one published yesterday by the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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