A Small, Good Week: Three men walk free in Mississippi

Bobby Ray Dixon (pictured to the left) and Phillip Bivens are free.   Thirty years ago, the two men confessed to the brutal rape and murder of Eva Gail Patterson in Mississippi.  A third man, Larry Ruffin, was also wrongfully convicted in this case, but died in prison eight years ago. 

Sophisticated DNA tests, unavailable when Dixon, Bivens and Ruffin were arrested three decades ago,  prove conclusively that these three men are innocent of wrongdoing.

At trial, prosecutors had little evidence to offer apart from the confessions the three men made to investigators.  The confessions were later recanted.  But jurors found it impossible to believe that innocent suspects would cop to a crime they didn’t commit–even for a brief moment.

Why did the three men implicate themselves?

The Innocence Project of New Orleans attorneys involved in this case, assisted by Jackson attorney Rob McDuff, were far too polite to press this issue at a hearing in Hattiesburg, MS last week.   When a judge sets your clients free, it seems a bit shabby to beat up on the folks who put them in prison. 

I don’t know enough about the specifics of the case to comment at length, but a few factors are commonly responsible for false confessions.

First, police interrogators don’t question innocent people.  If a suspect is subjected to hard-core questioning it is because the police “know” he done the deed.  Since the suspect is guilty, threats, lies and various forms of psychological munipulation are considered appropriate.  You don’t ask, “Did you do it?”; you ask, “How did you do it?”  You suggest possible motives that appear to minimize the horror of the crime.  You talk about the gas chamber and promise leniency in exchange for cooperation.  You deprive the suspect of sleep.  You work in teams to conserve energy while the man in the chair gradually turns to pulp.

And in the end you may get a confession.  But if, as suggested in this New York Times article, you get inconsistent and fuzzy statements from the man in the chair, should the case go to trial? 

Most homicides are never solved.  But in particularly heinous cases, the public clamor for prosecution and conviction can be enormous.  This is when innocent people go to prison . . . or to death row.

We should all be thankful to the good people at the Innocent Project of New Orleans for their outstanding work on this case.  IPNO Policy Director Tom Lowenstein was kind enough to submit the article that follows:  

A Small, Good Week

The strangest thing about the work we do at Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO) is how our greatest accomplishments seem at once enormous and tiny: enormous in the lives of the innocent men we are able to free from prison, and tiny in the context of the criminal justice system as a whole. Enormous in the good that is done when an innocent person is set free; tiny in the fact that the “good” resolution of the legal case has taken far too long, the innocent man has lost 10 or 20 or 30 years of his life and now has been set free without a dime to his name or a job or anything that might help him rebuild his life. It’s hard to imagine there is anything more important, or “bigger,” than saving an innocent life. Until you look at our criminal justice system as a whole, and think about how many lives stuck in it need to be saved. Then you can’t help but feel very small.

This week, IPNO got good news in seven cases: three men were exonerated by DNA evidence, and four other men who had been set free years ago were officially told, once and for all, that they would not be re-prosecuted. Seven exonerations. What a week.

But one of the men newly proven innocent won’t get a chance to enjoy it: he died eight years ago, in prison, having proclaimed his innocence at every opportunity over his 22 years of incarceration. And another of those men has very advanced cancer; he made it out of prison and will, it seems, at least have the chance to die with his family. The third man has no family around to help him, no money to his name, nowhere to stay. So he came to New Orleans with us, and is being helped by Resurrection After Exoneration, a group founded by an exoneree precisely to help other exonerees. Thank god for RAE—otherwise, who knows what would happen to that man. Thirty years in prison for something he didn’t do, then released with a laundry bag holding all his things—the judge even had to order the sheriff’s department to give him some new clothes because all he had was his prison jumpsuit.

The other four men have been out for a while, proven innocent years ago and released, only to have the authorities hang the threat of re-trying them over their heads for years. Now they are, finally, free.

This morning, at staff meeting, we were back to work: every case is a fight, every case takes years, every good ending is really just a slight correction to a decades-long injustice that the wrongfully convicted will live with until they die.

But seven exonerations in a week is a lot. Seven exonerations in a week will hopefully make people who never think about our justice system think about it. Maybe a few more people will realize that, with 2 million or so people incarcerated in our country, even if our error rate is 1% or .5%, that’s a lot of innocent people in prison. And maybe then they’ll realize that our justice system isn’t as good as it could or should be. That there are lots of ways to make it better, which is to say, lots of ways to create a safer, more just society.

Seven exonerations in a week. Our work can feel like pushing and pushing against a big boulder that never moves—but it just moved a tiny bit. So it’s time to push harder.

2 thoughts on “A Small, Good Week: Three men walk free in Mississippi

  1. this is wonderful. Congratulations and thanks for/to all those who work so hard to help the innocent. Now PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE help TROY DAVIS in georgia who has been on death row for 20yrs for a crime he didn’t commit. PEACE to all. Teddi Richman

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