What to Know
- A New York man accused of taking part in a violent gang rape in 1984 was formally cleared of the crime Tuesday
- Rafael Ruiz was exonerated after being charged and convicted in the rape of a woman on a Harlem rooftop
- He was freed in 2009, but he wanted freedom from being marked as a convict for the rest of his life
A New York man accused of taking part in a violent gang rape in 1984 was formally cleared of the crime Tuesday.
Rafael Ruiz was exonerated from the charges against him in State Supreme Court in Manhattan after serving 25 years in prison.
Ruiz was first arrested in May 1984, when at the age of 24 he was charged with taking part in the violent rape of an 18-year-old woman on a rooftop in Harlem.
The victim had told officials that a man named "Ronnie" had driven her to a building in the Robert F. Wagner Houses, 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.
Investigators returned to the scene of the crime and found Ruiz, who was staying in one of the apartments with his brother. 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. He also argued that he could not be "Ronnie" because he did not know how to drive. Nonetheless, Ruiz was convicted and sentenced to eight to 25 years in prison. He was released from prison in 2009.
Despite being freed, that wasn't all he was looking for — he wanted freedom from being marked as a convict for the rest of his life, for a crime he has always maintained he did not do.
"I didn't take no deal because I'm not a criminal," Ruiz said regarding his refusal to plead guilty. In 1985, he had been offered up to three years in prison in exchange for pleading guilty to sexual assault.
William Tendy, a lawyer hired by Ruiz and his family, began to reinvestigate the case and a year later made the startling discovery that around the same time Ruiz lived in the Wagner Houses, a woman lived across the hall and had a boyfriend named Ronnie.
The lawyer believed the victim had accidentally led the police to the wrong apartment and then mistakenly put them onto Ruiz's trail. More than a decade after his release, the Innocence Project found the rape kit from the victim's case and checked samples of Ruiz's DNA with samples from the kit. The two samples did not match, court documents show.
"It took us 13 years to prove this man’s innocence, and it took him 36 years," said Seema Saifi of the Innocence Project. Her colleague Barry Scheck agreed, saying it took "a tremendous amount of effort to find the rape kit."
While he and his family have been given an opportunity to start over, the now-60-year-old Bronx resident said he is not sure whether anyone will hire him for a job.
"My record is clean and my life is given back to me, but what am I supposed to do?" Ruiz said. "I'll just stay out of trouble and wait until something comes around."