HATTIESBURG, Miss. — A judge on Thursday freed two men who spent three decades in prison before DNA evidence showed they didn’t rape a woman and cut her throat in a grisly 1979 attack.
A crowded courtroom erupted in applause after Forrest County Circuit Judge Robert Helfrich’s ruled to set aside the men’s guilty pleas, ending what some described as a 30-year ordeal for the imprisoned men.
Helfrich said the case was marked by a series of tragic events — from the violent attack on the woman to the years the men spent in prison for a crime they didn’t commit.
“The common thread in this case is tragedy,” Helfrich said.
Helfrich ruled on a petition filed by the Innocence Project on behalf of Bobby Ray Dixon and Phillip Bivens. He’ll rule later on a posthumous petition for Larry Ruffin, who died in prison in 2002.
The three men were convicted in the 1979 rape and murder of Eva Gail Patterson, whose 4-year-old son watched her being killed.
Dixon, who has lung cancer and a brain tumour, received a medical release from prison last month. He and Bivens were both in court.
“I feel good. I’ve been blessed,” said Dixon, who later added, “I was done wrong. I know that.”
Bivens, 59, simply said, “Thank God.” Bivens, who arrived at court dressed in a red prison jumpsuit, also said he was ready to return home to California. He was released after the hearing.
Ruffin’s family, wearing blue and grey T-shirts that read, “Free at Last,” wept and hugged each other. His sister, Teresa Strickland, said she feels her brother has already been cleared.
“The DNA cleared my brother when we got the results,” she said. “We just can’t hug him, but he’s free.”
The victim’s son, Luke Patterson, has always maintained there was a single assailant.