Ruiz, 60, walked out of a New York courthouse Tuesday with the stain of his conviction formally wiped clean. To celebrate, he told the Innocence Project that he might do a little dance.
“Sometimes when I feel really happy, I just do it,” he told the organization, which seeks to exonerate people who have been wrongfully convicted. “I don’t care about my knees or anything. I just do a little break dance.”
The new evidence that prompted the state Supreme Court to vacate Ruiz’s conviction was discovered by the Innocence Project in partnership with the conviction integrity unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, the first of its kind on the East Coast. Conviction review units are becoming more common as prosecutors seek to revisit cases that may have been decided wrongly. The units have been involved in at least 390 exonerations, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
“A prosecutor’s job is not just to seek convictions, but to seek justice,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said in a statement after Ruiz’s name was cleared.
In Ruiz’s case, justice remained elusive for years because of a previously untested rape kit, which revealed that Ruiz was not the source of DNA found on the victim.
“I wish I had that when I was young,” Ruiz said Wednesday in an interview. “I would have never gone to jail.”
Scientists were just starting to develop DNA testing when Ruiz was prosecuted, but the victim’s rape kit was preserved for decades, said Seema Saifee, senior staff attorney at the Innocence Project. After her organization and the district attorney’s office pushed for the kit to be studied, it was tested last year.
Ruiz’s conviction was based largely on the victim’s identification of him — first in a photo array and then one on one, Saifee said. One-on-one identification, called a “show-up,” is often criticized as unreliable and linked to wrongful convictions.
“Every single piece of evidence pointed to his innocence,” Saifee said. “And it was only through this unbelievably suggestive identification procedure that he was arrested [and] convicted.”
The 18-year-old victim said that on the day of the assault, she encountered an acquaintance of her boyfriend while she was walking in the Bronx, according to the Innocence Project’s description of the case. The man, “Ronnie,” brought her to the 16th floor of a building in Manhattan, gathered two other men from an apartment and forced her to the building’s rooftop. There, they took turns sexually assaulting her.
Two weeks later, a police detective asked the woman to point out the apartment that Ronnie and the other men had come from. The detective knocked on the door that she chose, and Ruiz’s brother and sister-in-law answered. They told the detective that Ruiz and another brother had recently visited their apartment.
The detective tracked down Ruiz, then 24, and brought him to a police precinct just after midnight. There, he took Ruiz’s picture and included it in a photo array that he showed the woman.
Ruiz was the only one of the six men in the photos with a hairstyle similar to what the woman had described. She identified him as “Ronnie.”
On the advice of the district attorney’s office, court records say, the detective then put Ruiz in a room with a one-way mirror, with the victim on the other side. The victim again identified Ruiz, who was wearing the same clothing as in his photo, as one of her assailants.
Ruiz was charged with rape, sodomy, sexual abuse and robbery. No one else was ever indicted in connection with the assault.
Although he was offered a plea deal, Ruiz said he refused because he had not committed the crime.
“I’m not taking none of these deals,” he said he told people at the time. “I’m going to trial.”
Ruiz was convicted in February 1985 and sentenced to a maximum of 25 years in prison. He served all of it and was released in April 2009.
Because of the nature of his conviction, Ruiz was required to register as a sex offender, according to court records. He unsuccessfully appealed his case in 1986.
While Ruiz was incarcerated, a former assistant district attorney, William Tendy Jr., donated his time to reinvestigating the case, according to the Innocence Project and court records. He learned that another man who had lived on the same floor of the apartment building fit the woman’s description of her attacker. That man’s name was Ronnie.
Deciding that the victim must have identified the wrong apartment to police all those years ago, Tendy alerted the Innocence Project. The conviction review unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office also joined the probe.
Investigators from the conviction review unit and a team of sex-crimes prosecutors visited the woman in 2018. She told them that in 1984, she felt pressured by the police detective to identify a perpetrator.
“She said that to this day she cannot say if she got the right guy,” according to court records.
The fact that Ruiz has a limited ability to read and write makes his wrongful conviction even more unconscionable, Saifee said. The error could have been easily prevented with more due diligence from investigators, she said, thus preserving 25 years of an innocent man’s life.
“Yesterday was an incredibly happy day for Rafael,” Saifee said. “But at the same time, it’s remarkably devastating.”