Wrongful imprisonment
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Thanks to her "100 percent positive" identification, Ann Meng's rapist was sentenced to five life terms. There was only one problem: She was 100 percent wrong.
On a Friday night in 2002, Ann Meng arrived home to find the business card of a local newspaper reporter stuck in her door. The words Call me were scribbled on the back. She couldn't imagine why he'd want to speak to her until she went inside and played the message on her answering machine. It was from the commonwealth's attorney's office for the city of Norfolk, Virginia: "Please get in touch with us concerning a case you were involved in some years ago."

It had been two decades, but Meng knew instantly whom they were referring to: Julius Earl Ruffin, the man who had crept into her apartment early one morning and held her captive for almost an hour. The man who had raped and sodomized her. The man she later identified as her attacker and testified against in three separate trials. The man a third jury had finally convicted of burglary, rape, and sodomy. The man the judge had sentenced to five life terms.

When she spoke to the prosecutor, he said that the Virginia crime lab had discovered evidence thought long discarded and planned to test it for DNA. Did she have any concerns? Meng didn't especially want to go back to court and had to wonder at the lengths Ruffin was going to in order to prove his innocence. Still, she felt exactly as she had in 1982 when she'd testified to being 100 percent positive that he was her attacker. Nothing since then had made her any less sure.

But when the DNA analysis came in, it showed that Earl Ruffin was not the man who attacked her. The results were irrefutable. Although she'd been so certain, an innocent man had spent more than 20 years in prison. "I never believed I could make a mistake like that," she says. "Never."

With her glasses, close-cropped blonde hair, and somber demeanor, Meng comes across as a little schoolmarmish when I first meet her. But within minutes, she's poking fun as she drives me around in a stick-shift Toyota tagged with antiwar stickers. She is giving me a tour of West Ghent, the neighborhood where the rape occurred. Just outside downtown Norfolk, the area's tree-lined streets have become gentrified with rehabbed homes and condos. It's a nice place to live if you can afford it, a big change from 25 years ago when it was run-down and transient.

"That's the building," Meng says, pointing to a three-story brick colonial on the corner of Leigh Street and Westover Avenue. "The apartment is the one on the right-hand side of the first floor. There was a screen porch but no outlet from the porch to the street."

She was arriving home from her job as a surgical technician around midnight on December 5, 1981—a 32-year-old mother of three young children in the middle of a divorce. Her son and twin daughters were spending the weekend with their father, but Meng could not relax. "I felt really uncomfortable and I had this feeling that someone was there, so I went through the whole apartment, looked in all the closets first before I finally went to bed and to sleep."

Two hours later, she awoke to find a man leaning over her with a knife pressed to her throat. Her single shriek was muted when his large hand clamped over her mouth. "If you scream, you're dead," he said.

She believed him, so she stopped. She knew what would come next and prayed she would be alive when it was over.

For the next 45 minutes, he never stopped talking, alternating between threatening to come back and cripple her, or maybe kill her along with her children, and expressing his desire for her. "He said, 'I've fallen in love with you, but you probably wouldn't want a relationship with someone like me, would you?' I said, 'Maybe if we'd met another way,'" Meng recalls dryly, then rolls her eyes. I realize humor is one of the ways she copes with it all.

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