The Victim: A Wrongful Conviction
Still, certain details—Ruffin's alibi witnesses and the description inconsistencies—created enough reasonable doubt for the black jurors, though not for the whites. They were hopelessly deadlocked, and the judge declared a mistrial. Two months later, prosecutors tried Ruffin again. And again, the jury (seven blacks and five whites) was divided. Meng was ready to give up. "I wanted to move on," she says, but the prosecution pushed for a third trial.
This time, the 12 jurors were all white. "I thought it was wrong but felt that if this is what they had to do to put the guy away so he wouldn't rape anyone else and come back and kill my children, then okay," says Meng.
During that three-day trial, Meng told the court, "When I look at him, I know that's him, and when I hear him speak, I know that is his voice. He talked a lot. He was there a long time. He walked around. I was able to see his face and to see him completely, and when I saw him again I knew it was him." The jury filed out for deliberations around 4 p.m. They were back before the smokers finished their cigarettes. They found Ruffin guilty on the charges of statutory burglary, rape, and three counts of sodomy. He got five life terms.
Meng soon understood that putting the son of a bitch away for life did not guarantee that she would find peace or lose her fear. The trials had been the glue holding her together; afterward panic clutched the edges of her life. She moved several times, checked and rechecked the locks on every door, obsessed about burglar alarms, and would not allow the children to open the windows. Later she got a dog.
"For the first few years, I was suicidal most of the time," she recalls. "I hoarded enough sleeping pills for a lethal dose. I thought about crashing my car into the highway median almost daily. The only reason I didn't was because of my kids."
Over time, however, she managed to maintain a career and ultimately remarry, and was often able to minimize the rape in her memory, sometimes forgetting for days, even weeks, that it was there.
Meanwhile, in a stark, cramped prison cell, separated from a loving family who never believed he was guilty, Ruffin aged from a 28-year-old man to a gray-haired grandfather. His mother passed away, and his two young children became adults with kids of their own.
Steadfastly proclaiming his innocence, he lost appeals all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and was repeatedly denied parole, largely because he maintained that he had done nothing wrong. His only hope for freedom came in the 1990s, when DNA testing became increasingly available as a crime tool. But every time Ruffin sought to retest the evidence, the reply was always the same: There was nothing to test; the case file had been discarded after he exhausted his appeals in 1986.
As it turned out, however, that wasn't quite true. Long before CSI became the number one show on television, back in Virginia, forensic scientist Mary Jane Burton was taking procedural measures no one understood, taping bits of swabs containing blood, semen, and saliva from crime scenes into the files she kept.