Innocents: Too Late To Set Free
This is an ongoing series telling the stories of wrongful convictions in North America. Some of these stories contain content that may disturb some of you, so if you’re at all squeamish, don’t read them. To read more of these stories, please click here. If you have a story of someone wrongfully convicted, or you were yourself and want to talk about it, please email me at email@example.com. See my two previous series on the American Justice System, The Ultimate Price and Reasonable Doubt.
Imagine your son not coming home one night. Imagine his one-year-old daughter wondering where Daddy is. Imagine he’s the light of your life; the love that keeps your heart beating. Now, imagine getting a phone call from the police informing you he’s been arrested for the brutal rape and murder of a local woman. Imagine knowing he couldn’t have done it because you knew his alibi.
Try to imagine hearing the words, “he could face the death penalty.”
Larry Ruffin’s mother experienced just this. What’s worse, is that twenty-two years after her son’s conviction, he was electrocuted and died in prison, only a short time before the New Orleans Innocence Project agreed to take his case on, along with those of his codefendants.
In 1979, Eva Gail Patterson was raped and murdered in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Her four-year-old son, heartbreakingly, was the only witness to the horrific crime and told police repeatedly that he saw only one man hurt his mommy. With little to go on, police decided to follow a bad tip and arrested 19-year-old Larry Ruffin. Ruffin had an alibi, and it checked out – a fact that seemed not to phase police at all. With no evidence to link Ruffin to the crime, they interrogated him for hours, threatening him with the death penalty. Eventually, he agreed to sign a confession, one that he withdrew as soon as he was out of the interrogation setting.
As the trial neared, police became desperate to link this man to the crime with more than just a bad tip and a withdrawn confession. That was when they arrested Ruffin’s friends, Bobby Ray Dixon and Phillip Bivens. Applying the very same pressure to both of these men in the interrogation room as they had to Ruffin, each of the men eventually broke, confessed to committing the crime also, and implicated Ruffin as having played a major role in the rape and murder of Eva Gail Patterson. They did so in exchange for life without parole, as opposed to the death penalty.
All three men went to trial. All three men were convicted. All three men got life without parole. The juries did not seem to care that the sole witness reported only one perpetrator was present, nor the fact that Ruffin’s alibi checked out, or even that none of the confessions were even remotely consistent with each other or the physical evidence.
A month after Ruffin’s conviction, Bivens recanted his confession and Ruffin quickly appealed his conviction to the Mississippi Supreme Court. He lost.
In 2002, Ruffin was accidentally electrocuted in prison and suffered a heart attack as a result. He passed away before he could see the Innocence Project pick up his case. In 2010, the New Orleans Innocence Project finally obtained the DNA from the 1979 crime scene and petitioned to have it tested. The tests were granted, and the results, well, the results didn’t implicate any of the three men who had been convicted for the crime. The DNA present at the scene of the murder matched that of Andrew Harris, and no one else. Andrew was serving time for a rape that occurred two years after that of Eva Gail Patterson – a second rape that would not have happened, had police done their job properly.
On February 10th, 2011, Ruffin became the second person in US history to be fully exonerated posthumously. His daughter, Nikki Ruffin Smith, was elated to have the truth finally come out. It was too late to have a normal relationship with her father, but having his name cleared was the next best thing. Ruffin’s family all wore shirts that said, “Free at last.”
Along with Dixon and Bivens, Ruffin’s exoneration was a part of a trio of exonerations for the same crime. This fact alone should send shivers down your spine.
Imagine your son serving twenty-two years for a crime he did not commit, only to die in an accident in prison before his conviction would be thrown out. Imagine mourning the fact that he could not be present at his own exoneration. Imagine celebrating the news at his gravesite.
How would this story have turned out if the police had cleared Ruffin as a suspect after they realized his alibi checked out or heard the sole witness recount only one perpetrator attacking his mother? How would this story have turned out if the police had continued to look for leads and eventually arrested Andrew Harris for the crime?
It’s possible Larry Ruffin would still be alive. It’s possible he may have spent his life doting on his only daughter. He may have grown into a contributing member of society and had more children and a wife to care for. Maybe he becomes a cop and does his job well, which is more than I can say for the police who worked on his case.
One thing is for sure, though, had the police conducted this investigation with professional integrity and expertise, there would be one less rape victim out there. There would be one less instance of crime, and that makes it painfully apparent that any effective crime-reduction plan absolutely must include the relentless and ferocious fight against wrongful convictions.
This is an ongoing series telling the stories of wrongful convictions in North America. To be notified when the next one is posted, please fill out the subscription form in the footer of this site
To read more of these stories, please click here. If you have a story of someone wrongfully convicted, or you were yourself and want to talk about it, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. See my two previous series on the American Justice System, The Ultimate Price and Reasonable Doubt.
Help fight the epidemic of wrongful convictions in America by supporting the Innocence Project: Get Involved.
If you have a story of someone wrongfully convicted, or you were yourself and want to talk about it, please email me at email@example.com