Seven years ago this week,
Julius Earl Ruffin
was officially exonerated after spending more than two decades in prison for a rape he did not commit. Ruffin’s case illustrates not just the dangers of mistaken eyewitness identification, but the extraordinary circumstances that lead to many exonerations.
In late 1981, a Norfolk, Virginia woman was awoken in the middle of the night by a knife-wielding intruder in her home. The man threatened the woman repeatedly with the knife before raping her. After the rapist left, the woman called the police, describing her attacker as an African-American male, between 5’6 and 5’8, with dark skin.
Initially, the woman was shown more than 500 mug shots by the police, but could not identify the perpetrator. In the weeks after the attack, the victim recounted that she would scan the faces of black males on the street in search of the perpetrator. One afternoon, while riding the elevator at work, the woman saw Ruffin, a maintenance man at Eastern Virginia Medical School, who she believed was her attacker. She informed the police and confirmed her earlier identification of Ruffin at a lineup.
Unlike the woman’s description, Ruffin was 6’1 and light-skinned. He also had two gold teeth and facial hair. Ruffin was indicted, yet it took three separate trials before he was ultimately convicted. In the first two trials, the juries contained a mix of black and white jurors. Yet both panels were unable to reach a verdict, and mistrials were declared. The jury in Ruffin’s third trial was all white. The victim also described the rapist as taller than she had initially reported. The jury deliberated for seven minutes before convicting Ruffin of rape, sodomy and robbery. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Ruffin first learned of DNA testing in 1994, but was told that all evidence from his case had been destroyed. In an incredible stroke of luck, however, authorities soon learned that evidence had been saved by the unorthodox practices of a former lab technician. Mary Jane Burton, a state forensic scientist who died in 1999, habitually saved samples of biological evidence before they were sent to Virginia authorities for destruction.
In 2002, Ruffin wrote to John R. Doyle III, the Norfolk commonwealth’s attorney, who subsequently discovered that Burton had saved the relevant biological evidence from his case in her lab notebooks. DNA testing excluded Ruffin and implicated another man in Virginia’s DNA database who was already serving three life sentences for other sexual assaults. Testing also revealed that the man had committed the crimes attributed to another exoneree,
Arthur Lee Whitfield
Doyle, in cooperation with the Virginia Parole Board, paroled Ruffin the day after the results were disclosed, reuniting him with his family and son, who was only nine years old at the time of his conviction. A month later, he was officially pardoned by then Governor Mark Warner. Ruffin, who was 49 when he was released, now resides in Virginia with his family and girlfriend. He received $1.5 million in compensation for serving over 20 years in prison.
DNA testing of evidence from Burton’s casefiles has led to four other exoneration to date, including
. A review of the remainder of Burton’s notebooks is ongoing.
Other Exoneree Anniversaries This Week:
, Illinois (Served 7 years, Exonerated 3/15/1999).
, Texas (Served 17.5 years, Exonerated 3/17/06)
, Texas (Served 16 years, Exonerated 3/18/03)
, Washington D.C. (Served 1 year, Exonerated 3/19/2009)