After spending 25 years in jail for a gangrape he never committed, 60-year-old finally gets cleared of charges
A New York State Supreme Court judge finally vacated Ruiz's conviction, years after he was released on parole in 2009
Rafael Ruiz was just a 25-year-old living his normal life, dancing, putting up shows in the park with his friends when he was sent away for 25 long years for a crime he did not even commit. He told authorities he didn't do it, that he didn't do anything wrong, but it all fell to deaf ears. He even rejected four offers of entering into a guilty plea and get away with much less time (probably only one and a half to three years) if only he admitted that he had been part of a gang rape that took place in a Harlem rooftop in 1984. He knew he was innocent, so why enter a guilty plea, right?
His faith in his innocence proved to be a mistake. The case went to trial and in 1985, Ruiz was found guilty and sent away for eight and a half to 25 years. A bright man, with his whole life ahead of him, was suddenly scrambling to make sense of what was happening.
On January 28, a New York State Supreme Court judge finally vacated the 60-year-old Ruiz's conviction, years after he was released on parole in 2009. He had spent almost as much time in prison as he had spent outside of it and had almost served his whole sentence before the parole.
Jobs are scarce for those who have spent time behind bars, and even more so for those with a sexual assault conviction on their resume and his family supported him throughout. The now 60-year-old is hanging by a sliver of hope that things will change now. "My record is clean and my life is given back to me, but what am I supposed to do?” he said in an interview with the New York Times, "I'll just stay out of trouble and wait until something comes around."
On May 18, 1984, Ruiz was charged with raping an 18-year-old woman. She had reportedly been found on a sidewalk on First Avenue in East Harlem, freaking out. When the police came, she told them that someone named "Ronnie" had taken her to Robert F. Wagner Houses, a public housing complex in East Harlem, where she was raped and beaten by at least three men. She had been an acquaintance of "Ronnie".
She led them to the apartment where she thought she had been before the incident and the cops found Ruiz there. He was asked to cooperate with the investigation and he had agreed. He had been visiting his brother at the time.
Ruiz was picked from a photo line up of suspects that night around 2 am. All the men in the lineup had Afro hairstyles, except him. Only Ruiz had hair matching the description provided by the victim. She identified him as "Ronnie" even though he had never used that name in his life. Then she picked him out of a "one-on-one show-up", where he was the only face for her to pick. It is not a run of the mill process in these cases, in fact, it is used only in emergency situations. It is usually used in place of line ups of similar looking people.
"Ronnie" and the attackers were described as African-American and Ruiz was Latino. Ruiz also told authorities he couldn't have driven her because he didn't know how to drive a car.
The victim also later recalled that the investigators really wanted her to settle on the attacker and remembers them being pushy. Nevertheless, Ruiz was convicted and sent away. A plea would have brought him a maximum of three years, but he refused to take it.
Who was Ronnie?
A former Assistant DA from New York named William M. Tendy, Jr. decided to take a look at the case after Ruiz reached out to him in 2003, 15 years after losing his appeal. At first, William had been quite skeptical about how much effort he could put into the case, but then what he found shocked him and he had no choice but to go all out. He dedicated three years on the case, without any compensation.
He found that there was a man living on the same 16th floor of the building who had a history of violence, according to the neighbors. He matched the victim's description of the assailant and to top it off, his name was Ronnie. The real Ronnie lived across the hall and the victim had misidentified the apartment. Tendy referred the case to the Innocence Project who began to probe the case once again.
The victim's sexual assault kit was arranged for DNA testing and none of them matched Ruiz. The victim told them that she had been unsure about Ruiz but had been feeling the pressure from investigators.
"I was a man who went to court and went to trial to prove his innocence, but I was treated like I was already guilty when I stepped in there,” Ruiz said.