A Hampton Roads man was freed from prison yesterday, two decades after he was convicted of raping a nursing student and just one day after DNA tests conclusively proved another man committed the crime.
"I'd like to thank God for this day," Julius Earl Ruffin, 49, of Suffolk told WAVY-TV as he walked out of the Southampton Correctional Center where his sister, brother and son were waiting. "The first thing I want to do is visit my mother's grave. It's been 21 long years."
Ruffin was released on parole because the Norfolk commonwealth's attorney and Virginia Parole Board decided it was faster than waiting for a governor's pardon or a court to exonerate him.
The DNA tests conducted by the state Division of Forensic Science that cleared Ruffin also got a "cold hit," matching the evidence from the Norfolk rape with DNA on file in a state data bank of people convicted of serious felonies since 1990.
"We've already taken steps to follow up on that," said John R. Doyle III, the Norfolk commonwealth's attorney, who declined to identify the new suspect.
Gordon A. Zedd, Ruffin's attorney, said he started shaking when a seven-page fax outlining the results arrived at his office after the close of business Tuesday. He said he contacted Doyle, who in turn called the Parole Board to secure Ruffin's release the next day.
Ruffin was found guilty of raping and sodomizing a woman in 1981 after breaking into her apartment. Several weeks after the attack, the victim was in an elevator at Eastern Virginia Medical School when Ruffin, a maintenance worker there, walked in. The victim called police, who arrested him on the basis of her account.
Ruffin's girlfriend said he was with her at the time of the rape. But at his trial, the victim said she was certain that Ruffin had attacked her, Zedd said. Using the scientific testing common at the time, semen found at the crime scene was linked to a pool that included 8 percent of all African American men.
Two juries couldn't reach a unanimous verdict; a third jury found Ruffin guilty. He was sentenced to five life terms.
At the time, crime labs, courts and police routinely destroyed DNA evidence after convictions and appeals were exhausted. But Mary Jane Burton, a state forensic scientist who has since died, had a habit of clipping a bit of each sample before it was returned to local authorities for destruction.
Ruffin wrote to Doyle last year asking him to determine whether any evidence from his case was saved. The evidence Burton had tucked away was located last summer.
Ruffin is the seventh inmate in Virginia, and the 124th in the country, to be cleared by new DNA testing of old evidence.
"Science has brought a degree of objectivity and certainty to things that we once looked at more subjectively," Doyle said. "Twenty years ago, people didn't have that science. We're blessed with it now. It's difficult to assign fault. That doesn't mean an injustice wasn't done. But we have the ability to get to the truth of the matter."
Ruffin's son, Karl Frazier, was 9 when his father was put behind bars. Two decades of lost time passed before him yesterday as Frazier, now 29, spoke to WAVY.
"I'm mad. I'm happy. I'm disappointed. Everything rolled into one," he said. "He missed out on a lot of good times."
But Zedd said his client harbored no bitterness toward his accuser or the office that prosecuted him.
"The man is totally not bitter," Zedd said. "He told me that the woman made a mistake, and he can't fault her for that."