NEW YORK (AP) — A man who served 14 years in prison for a deadly 1990s shooting was exonerated Thursday after prosecutors said they now believe the killer was an acquaintance he has implicated for decades.
“I lost 14 years of my life for a crime that I didn’t commit,” Steven Ruffin told a Brooklyn judge after sighing with emotion.
Although Ruffin was paroled in 2010 and has since built a career in sanitation in Georgia, he said that getting his manslaughter conviction dismissed and his name cleared “will help me move on.”
“If you know you’re innocent, don’t give up on your case — keep on fighting, because justice will prevail,” Ruffin, 45, said outside court. “That’s all I’ve wanted for 30 years: somebody to listen and really hear what I’m saying and look into the things I was telling them.”
Prosecutors said they were exploring whether to charge the man they now believe shot 16-year-old James Deligny on a Brooklyn street during a February 1996 confrontation over some stolen earrings. Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said after court that charges, if any, wouldn’t come immediately.
“You have to be able to convict someone beyond a reasonable doubt, and we have to make sure that that evidence is sufficient to do so,” said Gonzalez, who wasn’t DA when Ruffin was tried. “You have a lot of factors working against us procedurally, but also factually — unfortunately, this is 30 years ago.”
Ruffin’s conviction is the latest of more than three dozen that Brooklyn prosecutors have disavowed after reinvestigations over the last decade.
Over a dozen, including Ruffin’s, were connected to retired Detective Louis Scarcella. He was lauded in the 1980s and ‘90s for his case-closing prowess, but defendants have accused him of coercing confessions, engineering dubious witness identifications and other troubling tactics. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Prosecutors said in their report on the Ruffin case that they “did not discover any misconduct by Scarcella” in the matter. A message seeking comment was sent to his attorney.
Prosecutors said the police investigation — and their office’s own at the time — “were wholly inadequate” and tunnel-visioned, failing to look into the person they now believe was the gunman.
The mistaken-identity shooting happened as Ruffin and others were looking for a robber who had just snatched earrings from Ruffin’s sister. In fact, Deligny wasn’t the robber, authorities say.
Tipsters led police to Ruffin, then a 17-year-old high school student, and the victim’s sister identified him in a lineup that a court later deemed flawed. Scarcella wasn’t involved in the lineup, but he and another detective questioned Ruffin.
The teen told them, twice, that he saw but wasn’t involved in Deligny’s shooting, according to police records quoted in prosecutors’ report.
Then Scarcella brought the teen’s estranged father — a police officer himself — to the precinct. The father later testified that he told his son to “tell the truth,” but Ruffin said his father leaned on him to confess.
And he did confess, saying he fired because he thought Deligny was about to pull something out of his jacket. Ruffin told the detectives they could retrieve the gun from his sister’s boyfriend, and they did, prosecutors’ report said.
Ruffin quickly recanted to his father, who didn’t tell the detectives his son had taken back his confession, according to prosecutors’ report. The teen went on to testify at his trial that he didn’t shoot Deligny but saw and knew the killer — his sister’s boyfriend, the one who’d given police the gun, broken up into parts and stuffed into potatoes.
Jurors at Ruffin’s trial heard from the boyfriend, but only about his relationships with the defendant, his sister and others in the case. When the jury was out of the room, the boyfriend invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and declined to answer other questions, including where he’d been on the night of the shooting.
Prosecutors didn’t release the boyfriend’s name Thursday, and the names of lawyers who have represented him weren’t immediately available. He told prosecutors during their recent reinvestigation that he had nothing to do with the shooting and didn’t give detectives the gun. He also said he never confessed to anyone, though prosecutors say Ruffin’s stepfather, sister and late mother all have said he made admissions to them.
Asked Thursday about the boyfriend, Ruffin’s lawyers noted that the prospect of any prosecution now is uncertain.
“We only wish that in 1996, Detective Scarcella and others had performed the investigation they should have and been able to get this right the first time,” attorney Garrett Ordower said, noting that Deligny’s family may now never have the finality of a conviction in his death.
As for Ruffin, he’s focused on his future, including promotion opportunities at his job in Atlanta. His now-voided conviction, he said, “never defined me.”
“This never really spoke of the person I was or the man I was going to become,” he said. “So this, to me, is a great closure of a chapter my life, but my life is still going up.”
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