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.
"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?
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.
It was Burton's testimony about the B-secretor evidence that had helped seal Ruffin's fate in 1982. In 2002, however—when she'd been retired for 14 years and dead for three—she would become his unwitting savior. His file was one of those still stored in boxes in a warehouse of the Virginia Department of Forensic Science. Finally, after two decades of trying to prove his innocence, Ruffin got a break.
Recently, as Meg and I sat at the tiny table in her kitchen leafing through the dozens of newspaper clippings she has collected on the case since it resurfaced in the news in December 2002, she said, "I've read everything printed, and followed it like crazy." During the two months after that first call from the prosecutor, she welcomed the certainty DNA would bring. But on February 12, when the prosecutor called again to say that Ruffin was innocent—the DNA matched a man named Aaron Doxie, a convicted rapist—she nearly collapsed.
I have to say, when I see the mug shots of Doxie and Ruffin at the time of the rape, I am stunned. "You've got to be kidding me!" I tell her. "They look absolutely nothing alike!"
"You don't think so?" she asks sincerely.
Not only is Ruffin taller, thinner, and several shades lighter, but the two men bear no facial resemblance at all. Being black men is the only thing they have in common. As an African-American, I can see this.
But such mistakes are surprisingly common. In an analysis of 200 prisoners exonerated by postconviction DNA in this country (there have been 205 cases to date), all but 15 involved rape and the leading cause of wrongful conviction (79 percent) was eyewitness misidentification. (Other reasons were faulty forensic evidence, false informant testimony, and false confessions.) Of the 200 exonorees in the study, to be published in January's Columbia Law Review, 14 had been sentenced to death, and 50 sent to prison for life. Almost all the eyewitness errors were made by strangers. When black men are accused of sexually assaulting white women, the odds of such errors are much higher—about five times the rate of misidentification within the same racial group, according to Peter J. Neufeld, cofounder of the Innocence Project, which works to exonerate wrongfully convicted prisoners through DNA testing. The reason has to do with how we respond to trauma, says Gary Wells, PhD, an eyewitness identification expert and professor of psychology at Iowa State University: "Under stress, the brain goes into fight-or-flight mode and devotes most of its efforts to survival, lessening its ability to form clear memories. When people visually process their environment, they're actually taking in much less information than we ever thought." In Meng's case, still traumatized by her ordeal, she ran into a man similar enough to her attacker, and he gave her a friendly look. "What luck," she says, "to smile at someone who's just been raped."
At first, when Meng learned Ruffin was innocent, she was terrified. "I was so afraid of what he might do to me," she recalls. "He had every reason to hate me."
But when she watched him on television walking out of prison a free man and he was asked what he would say to his accuser, he responded: "I don't fault you. I don't blame you. It was just an honest mistake."
"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.