A judge in Hattiesburg, Mississippi today threw out the guilty pleas of two men who had spent three decades in prison for rape and murder after DNA tests showed they were innocent. The decision comes too late, however, for a third man who died in prison eight years ago.
Bobby Dixon, Phillip Bivens and Larry Ruffin were sentenced to life in prison for the rape and murder of Eva Gail Patterson of Hattiesburg in 1979. Larry Ruffin died behind bars in 2002.
The Innocence Project filed a petition in July on behalf of Dixon and Bivens and a separate petition on behalf of Ruffin just yesterday. The advocacy group had lobbied for new DNA tests of the evidence from the 1979 rape, and tests showed that the DNA matched that of another man Andrew Harris, who is currently serving a life sentence in a Mississippi prison for a 1981 rape.
Bobby Dixon was released from prison last month in order to undergo treatment for terminal cancer, but Bivens, now 59, remained behind bars. He attended the hearing in his prison jumpsuit before being set free by the judge's ruling.
"It was a good result in a tragic situation," said Emily Maw, director of the Innocence Project New Orleans and lawyer for Dixon, Bivens and the Ruffin family. "This is a particularly sad case. Another man committed the crime and then let these men sit in prison for 30 years. We hope it will have an impact on how we look at confessions and guilty pleas."
Dixon and Bivens had pleaded guilty in 1980 to the crime and claimed that Ruffin was the rapist. Dixon claimed in an interview with the Jackson Clarion-Ledger that he fingered Ruffin after police beat him. Ruffin insisted on taking his case to trial continued to maintain his innocence until his death in a prison accident.
Judge Robert Helfrich said he did not rule on Ruffin's petition because it was received Wednesday and he had not had time to review it. Maw said that she expects the petition for Ruffin's posthumous exoneration will not be taken up until a grand jury has decided whether to charge Andrew Harris with Patterson's rape and murder.
The results of the DNA test make Ruffin the second inmate to have been exonerated posthumously by DNA testing. In 2009, DNA tests showed that Texas inmate Tim Cole did not commit the 1985 rape for which he was serving time. Cole died in prison in 1999.