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"He called it an honest mistake," Meng repeats to me, her tone still incredulous. "He said he'd forgiven me because I'd made an honest mistake." (Ruffin told me he is writing a book about his experience and politely declined to comment for this article.)

After several months of sleepless nights, Meng wrote Ruffin asking for his forgiveness. He had already given it, but she needed to ask anyway. "I didn't think he could say anything worse than I'd said to myself," she recalls. Later she wrote the governor in support of Ruffin's petition for compensation and traveled to Richmond to testify on his behalf. That day the two came face-to-face.

"I was really scared, but Earl was great," she recalls. "He was as nice and gracious as can be. He said, 'Hello, how are you doing, and thanks for coming.' I apologized again. I can never apologize enough. I don't know if I've completely forgiven myself and if I ever will." Since going public with her story, Meng says she has received none of the backlash she expected, a fact that only exacerbates the deep remorse she already feels. "Frankly, it bothers me that people treat me so well," she says. "I point out that the big victim in this case is Earl Ruffin and his family. What happened to me was horrible and it caused me a lot of pain, but it's tiny compared to what he went through. I was allowed to move on, but he woke up every morning in that prison."

I ask how she lives with this. "I'm working on it. The only thing I can do is give something back by speaking out. We can't just say, 'Everybody in prison deserves to be there.' Let's look at what's wrong in our criminal justice system and fix it."

In March 2004, Virginia awarded Ruffin more than $1.2 million. "I think we owe him that," says Meng. "The all-white jury was just wrong. They looked at me and saw their daughter or sister and said, 'I don't want him to hurt somebody I love, so let's get this guy off the street.' There was nobody on that jury who looked at Earl and saw their brother, son, or husband. I take responsibility for my part in what happened. But the criminal justice system failed all of us."

As Meng tells me this, she stares at Doxie's mug shot. His face provokes no fear, no outrage, no anger. It means nothing to her. That is not the case with Ruffin. Glancing at his handsome profile in a newspaper clipping, she says, "This picture of Earl, looking at him at this angle, it sends chills through me—still." There is not a shred of Meng's conscious mind that believes Ruffin was her attacker, yet getting past this immediate visceral reaction may take years. For two decades, whenever she replayed the scenes from that cold December night, it was Ruffin's hand that clutched the knife, his face that pressed in upon her. In those fleeting subconscious moments, the memory remains that way today. It is yet one more thing to lament.

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