NEW YORK -- A New York man who spent 25 years in prison for a violent rape he did not commit said he lost his youth and now, at 60, does not know what kind of a future lies ahead.
“I am free, but I am broke and I can't get a job,” Rafael Ruiz said during an interview with The Associated Press.
Ruiz was exonerated Tuesday in state Supreme Court in Manhattan of sexual assault charges after he was accused of taking part in the violent gang rape of an 18-year-old woman in 1984. He was 25 when he entered prison. He served the entirety of the sentence and was released in 2009, but it took 10 years more to demonstrate his innocence and get exonerated.
Now, the Bronx native born to Puerto Rican parents does not know if he will sue for wrongful conviction, he said.
The rape victim in the case had told officials that a man named “Ronnie” had driven her to a building in a public housing complex in East Harlem. She said this man took her to one of the apartments in the building and then up to the roof where she was raped and beaten by at least three men.
One of Ruiz's brothers lived in the same building, which Ruiz visited often. The victim identified Ruiz in a photo array of possible suspects as one of the men involved in her assault, even though he had not fit her original description. The woman had initially said all of her attackers were black, but Ruiz is Hispanic.
Ruiz was offered a plea deal of one and a half to three years in prison but he maintained his innocence and went to trial. He was convicted and sentenced to eight to 25 years in prison. During his time in jail, his parents and several siblings died, Ruiz said.
Prison was a violent place, where he always had to watch his back, he said. He was in four different prisons and a medium-security correctional facility in New York state.
“For 37 years I thought about that moment,” he said, referring to his exoneration.
After his release, he wasn't able to find work because of his conviction so he did off-the-books maintenance and cleaning jobs while he lived with his sister Maria in the Bronx. He said it was also hard to find a wife because of his life story.
“I don't want to keep anger in my head. I don't want to keep hate,” he responded when asked whether he still feels those feelings.
William Tendy, a lawyer who assisted Ruiz while he was in prison, began to reinvestigate the case and made the startling discovery that around the time of the crime a woman lived across the hall from Ruiz's brother and had a boyfriend named “Ronnie.” Tendy concluded that the victim identified the wrong apartment on the 16th floor. Tendy referred the case to the Innocence Project.
The nonprofit and the New York County District Attorney’s Office’s Conviction Integrity Program arranged for DNA testing of the victim’s sexual assault kit, which took a long time to find. Ruiz's DNA and samples from the kit did not match.
Seema Saifee, senior staff attorney at the Innocence Project, said that no one has been able to find “Ronnie,” for whom there is no last name. That, however, is a different case than Ruiz's, who is now trying to move on.
“I feel like a 1-year old, like a baby,” he said. “I am going back into society again, to catch up.”