“River of Fire”: In New Memoir, Sister Helen Prejean Reflects on Decades of Fighting Executions

The Trump administration is moving ahead with plans to resume the death penalty after a more than 15-year moratorium. This week Attorney General William Barr proposed fast-tracking executions in mass murder cases, and last month ordered the execution of five death row prisoners beginning in December. The federal government has executed just three people since 1963 — the last being in 2003. The death penalty is widely condemned by national governments, international bodies and human rights groups across the world. Experts say capital punishment does not help deter homicides and that errors and racism in the criminal justice system extend to those sentenced to death. We speak with Sister Helen Prejean, a well-known anti-death-penalty activist who began her prison ministry over 30 years ago. She is the author of the best-selling book “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty,” which was turned into an Academy Award-winning film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. …

Found guilty in 1979 slaying, Larry Ruffin exonerated by DNA after his death

Larry Ruffin
The late Larry Ruffin has become the second person in the U.S. to be formally exonerated posthumously, thanks to DNA testing.

"It's wonderful," said Ruffin's daughter, Nikki Ruffin Smith, who was less than a year old when her father was arrested in the case. "It can't bring him back, but justice is served. So is the truth."

On Friday, Circuit Judge Robert Helfrich filed an order throwing out Ruffin's capital murder conviction for the 1979 the rape and murder of Eva Gail Patterson of Eatonville.

"Larry Ruffin is officially exonerated and declared innocent of the crime of capital murder for which he was convicted in 1980 in Forrest County," Helfrich wrote. "That conviction is null and void."

In 2002, Ruffin, while serving a life sentence, was accidentally electrocuted and died of a heart attack in prison. The Innocence Project in New Orleans had pushed for the DNA tests and the exonerations of Ruffin and others.

In September, Helfrich exonerated Bobby Ray Dixon and Phillip Bivens, who had each pleaded guilty in the case. Dressed in a red prison jumpsuit, Bivens said then all he could think was "Thank God. Thank God."

Bivens, 59, is now living in New Orleans in a transitional home provided by the non-profit organization Resurrection After Exoneration. Last month, he attended his first NFL game, watching the New Orleans Saints lose to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"He's doing well," said Emily Maw, director of the Innocence Project in New Orleans. "He's trying to get a job gardening."

Dixon, who was suffering from terminal lung cancer and a brain tumor, died months after being exonerated.

In 2009, Tim Cole, who died in 1999, became the first person exonerated posthumously. A judge threw out Cole's conviction after DNA cleared him of the 1985 rape of a Texas Tech University student.

Cole and Ruffin likely won't be the last people exonerated posthumously, Maw said. "There are lessons for everyone in this. Red flags were ignored in this case. You want to make sure you're not developing tunnel vision. It's so innate in all of us. Our human nature can lead us to do things that have such significant consequences."

During the original investigation into Patterson's murder, her 4-year-old son - the lone eyewitness in the case - told authorities there was one assailant, not three.

DNA tests have implicated Andrew Harris, 50, already serving a life sentence for a 1981 rape in the Hattiesburg area. A Forrest County grand jury has since indicted Harris with capital murder in Patterson's slaying.

Before the indictment, Harris had been eligible for parole.

"In this case, the person had escaped punishment for the crime," Maw said. "We're about catching the real person who did the crime."

In Cole's case, Jerry Wayne Johnson confessed to the rape in 1995 - after the statute of limitations. But DNA tests weren't run until after Cole's death.

Johnson is serving a life sentence for abducting a 15-year-old girl from her high school and raping her. He is also serving a 99-year sentence for raping a 20-year-old woman.

Ruffin's sister, Teresa Strickland, said the family cherishes the fact her brother has been cleared, and that it came during Black History Month.

"My mama said she wants everybody to know that she believed her son was innocent, that we believed in our brother," she said.

Bivens and Dixon "both got to hear they were innocent, both got to see their names cleared," she said. "My brother never got to have that chance. Their testimony sent him to prison. That's the hurting part of it."

At the 1980 trial, Dixon initially testified Ruffin raped Patterson and Bivens slit her throat, but then backed off that testimony, telling jurors he had never seen Patterson before, according to the trial transcript.

"Bobby Ray Dixon, did you stand before this court in Hattiesburg and plead guilty to the murder?" asked then-District Attorney Bud Holmes.

"Yes, I pleaded guilty," Dixon said.

"And was it free and voluntary?" Holmes asked.

"It wasn't free and voluntary," Dixon replied.

In an interview before his death, Dixon told The Clarion-Ledger he had nothing to do with the crime and was coerced to testify.

Maw said she hopes Ruffin's family "can begin to heal from the tragedy - a tragedy that began with Larry's wrongful arrest at age 19 and was compounded by his untimely death in prison, convicted of a crime he knew he was innocent of."

Source: ClarionLedger.com, J. Mitchell, Feb. 22, 2011
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