The Victim: A Wrongful Conviction
"He was a sick puppy, and I was trying to be very diplomatic, just trying to stay alive," Meng continues. Every time she turned toward him, he warned, "Don't look at me." She averted her eyes but stole glances and tried to take in as much about him as she could. After he was finished, he ordered her to take a shower and brush her teeth, then get back in bed and pretend nothing ever happened. She did, careful to preserve as much evidence as she could. When he finally left, he took what was in her wallet, including her ATM card, which she gave him the code for, and the $20 in pennies she had rolled with her son. Even now, remembering those pennies brings her to tears.
She lay there in the dark for 45 minutes to make sure he was gone. Then she sprang up and ran through the building pounding on the neighbors' doors for help. When the police arrived, she told them everything she could remember: He was a dark-skinned black man with some hair on the sides of his face, about a foot taller than her (so at most 5'11"), and smelled strongly of gasoline. She was frustrated that she couldn't describe him in more detail. Trust yourself, the officers told her. You'll remember more with time. Things will become clearer, they promised.
Meng never spent another night in that apartment. "I was really freaked out," she says. "I had anxiety attacks and thought this guy was everywhere. When I'd see a group of people, I imagined he was among them." Haunted by his threat to find her, she was determined to find him first. She looked for him on crowded streets, at the market, in passing cars. And about six weeks later, she found him on an elevator. He was a maintenance worker at the medical office building where she worked at Eastern Virginia Medical School.
"He looked at me and smiled," she says, a memory that even now makes her tremble. She stood there frozen in fear, replaying every detail of that frigid December night. "It's definitely him," she thought, but she needed to be sure, so she asked maintenance to send him up to the office on the ruse of checking out the radiator. Her visceral reaction to him up close confirmed her hunch. "It was a small office, and the whole time he was there, I had flashbacks and could hardly stay in there," says Meng. "That's when I called the detective and said, 'Maybe you should talk to him, because to me he looks like the guy.'"
From the moment the detectives confronted Ruffin, his story never changed. He had not raped anyone and he had three alibis for that night: He and his girlfriend spent the evening watching a horror movie on television with his brother and brother's girlfriend. Unfortunately for Ruffin, having a family member for an alibi ranks one step above having no alibi at all, particularly when the crime is rape and the victim is so certain and, in this case, so white.
Meng went to the police station for a voice lineup and picked Ruffin as soon as he began to speak. "That's the man!" she said with absolute certainty. He was booked and locked up.
There were a few problems. Ruffin was over 6 feet tall, not under. He was fair complexioned, not dark skinned. He also wore a beard and a mustache, not the hair pattern she'd described. And he had two gold front teeth, a detail Meng did not recall at all from the night of the attack. But by the time the trial got under way in Norfolk Circuit Court on May 3, 1982, Meng was surer than ever. And in the pre-DNA era, the best available science said Ruffin was a B secretor, which means he had type B blood that could be determined through his semen—as was true for roughly 8 percent of the male population, including the attacker. What were the odds it could be someone else?