Man Wrongfully Convicted of Rape Exonerated 35 Years Later
- Rafael Ruiz was convicted of sexually assaulting a woman in 1985 and declined a guilty plea deal that could have granted him a shorter sentence.
- He had been eligible for release since 1992 but refused to admit guilt before a parole board several times.
- After serving a 25-year sentence, Ruiz was released from prison in 2009 and spent the past decade fighting to clear his name.
- With help from the Innocence Project, the victim’s rape kit was tested in 2019, proving that Ruiz’s DNA was not a match.
- On Tuesday, a New York judge formally exonerated Ruiz of the crime.
A wrongfully-convicted New York man who spent over two decades in prison was fully exonerated on Tuesday.
Rafael Ruiz, 60, was found guilty in a gang rape case in 1985. He was sentenced to a maximum of 25 years in prison, and ultimately served all of it. Though he was released in 2009, Ruiz spent the last decade fighting to clear his name.
His efforts were rewarded this week when a judge formally exonerated him at a hearing in State Supreme Court in Manhattan.
“I have my freedom and now I can go on with my life,” Ruiz told the Innocence Project, the nonprofit organization that helped him through the legal process.
Long Road to Justice
In 1984, a woman was sexually assaulted on a rooftop by three men in Manhattan, New York. Shortly after the attack, she pointed detectives to the apartment that she thought the men had come from.
The unit she identified was the home of Ruiz’s brother, who told the authorities that Ruiz had recently visited. The police tracked down Ruiz and brought him in for questioning later that night, according to the Innocence Project.
The victim picked out Ruiz’s photo from a picture line-up, identifying him as “Ronnie,” a name he never went by. Right afterward, the victim identified him again in a one-on-one identification through a one-way mirror, a method that has been criticized for being prone to error.
Ruiz was convicted in 1985 and was originally offered a guilty plea deal that would significantly shorten his time behind bars. But he turned down the deal, adamant about maintaining his innocence.
“I was a man who went to court and went to trial to prove his innocence, but I was treated like I was already guilty when I stepped in there,” Ruiz told the Innocence Project.
One of Ruiz’s attorneys with the Innocence Project, Seema Saifee, told ABC that Ruiz consistently maintained his innocence multiple times before a parole board over the years. Saifee said he only implicated himself one time in a desperate attempt to be released and see his mother, who was dying of cancer.
After Ruiz was incarcerated, he received legal help from an attorney named William M. Tendy, Jr. Years into working on the case, Tendy found another man who lived on the same floor of the apartment building where the woman was attacked. This individual fit the victim’s description of the attacker and his name was Ronnie.
After this discovery, Tendy contacted the Innocence Project to take Ruiz’s case. The Conviction Integrity Program of the New York County District Attorney’s Office also joined in on the investigation.
Efforts from the two teams uncovered the victim’s untested rape kit in 2019, and after his DNA samples did not match, Ruiz’s innocence was finally proven.
What’s Next for Ruiz
Ruiz’s exoneration brings a mixed swirl of emotions for him and his loved ones.
“Yesterday was an incredibly happy day for Rafael,” Saifee told the Washington Post after the judge’s order. “But at the same time, it’s remarkably devastating.”
Ruiz currently lives in the Bronx with his brother. For the past ten years, he has had a difficult time finding a job because he was listed as a felon. Even with a clear record, he expressed worry about what his next professional steps will be.
Regardless, Ruiz looks ahead with a hopeful attitude and has even found positives in the situation.
“I lost 25 years of my life because I insisted upon my innocence and rejected plea bargains. Today feels like a huge burden off my shoulders and I look forward to living a good life moving forward,” Ruiz told the Innocence Project.
“I guess now I might be one of the cases or life stories in those law books that someone can use and hopefully it can help them out with their cases,” he added. “That makes me feel good because I would like to see [innocent] people who got accused of doing a crime not go back into the system or lose their families or loved ones.”
The Innocence Project set up a link to Ruiz’s Amazon Wish List for those wishing to support him in some way.
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Survey and Census Data Shows Record Number of Americans are Struggling Financially
Americans are choosing not to pursue medical treatment more and more frequently as they encounter money troubles.
A recent federal survey shows that a record number of Americans were worse off financially in 2022 than a year prior.
Coupled with recent census data showing pervasive poverty across much of the country, Americans are forced to make difficult decisions, like foregoing expensive healthcare.
According to a recent Federal Reserve Bureau survey, 35% of adults say they were worse off in 2022 than 2021, which is the highest share ever recorded since the question was raised in 2014.
Additionally, half of adults reported their budget was majorly affected by rising prices across the country, and that number is even higher among minority communities and parents living with their children.
According to recent census data, more than 10% of the counties in the U.S. are experiencing persistent poverty, meaning the area has had a poverty rate of 20% or higher between 1989 and 2019.
16 states report at least 10% of their population living in persistent poverty. But most of the suffering counties were found in the South — which accounts for over half the people living in persistent poverty, despite making up less than 40% of the population.
These financial realities have placed many Americans in the unfortunate situation of choosing between medical treatment and survival. The Federal Reserve study found that the share of Americans who skipped medical treatment because of the cost has drastically increased since 2020.
The reflection of this can be found in the overall health of households in different income brackets. 75% of households with an income of $25,000 or less report being in good health – compared to the 91% of households with $100,000 or more income.
See what others are saying: (Axios) (The Hill) (Federal Reserve)
Montana Governor Signs TikTok Ban
The ban will likely face legal challenges before it is officially enacted next year.
First Statewide Ban of TikTok
Montana became the first state to ban TikTok on Wednesday after Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) signed legislation aimed at protecting “Montanans’ personal and private data from the Chinese Communist Party.”
The ban will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2024, though the law will likely face a handful of legal challenges before that date.
Under the law, citizens of the state will not be held liable for using the app, but companies that offer the app on their platforms, like Apple and Google, will face a $10,000 fine per day of violations. TikTok would also be subject to the hefty daily fine.
Questions remain about how tech companies will practically enforce this law. During a hearing earlier this year, a representative from TechNet said that these platforms don’t have the ability to “geofence” apps by state.
Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics, told the Associated Press that app stores could have the capability to enforce the restriction, but it would be difficult to carry out and there would be a variety of loopholes by tools like VPNs.
Montana’s law comes as U.S. politicians have taken aim at TikTok over its alleged ties to the CCP. Earlier this year, the White House directed federal agencies to remove TikTok from government devices. Conservatives, in particular, have been increasingly working to restrict the app.
“The Chinese Communist Party using TikTok to spy on Americans, violate their privacy, and collect their personal, private, and sensitive information is well-documented,” Gov. Gianforte said in a Wednesday statement.
Criticism of Montana Law
TikTok, however, has repeatedly denied that it gives user data to the government. The company released a statement claiming Montana’s law “infringes on the First Amendment rights of the people” in the state.
“We want to reassure Montanans that they can continue using TikTok to express themselves, earn a living, and find community as we continue working to defend the rights of our users inside and outside of Montana,” the company said.
The American Civil Liberties Union condemned Montana’s law for similar reasons.
“This law tramples on our free speech rights under the guise of national security and lays the groundwork for excessive government control over the internet,” the ACLU tweeted. “Elected officials do not have the right to selectively censor entire social media apps based on their country of origin.”
Per the AP, there are 200,000 TikTok users in Montana, and another 6,000 businesses use the platform as well. Lawsuits are expected to be filed against the law in the near future.
See what others are saying: (Associated Press) (Fast Company) (CBS News)
How a Disney-Loving Former Youth Pastor Landed on The FBI’s “Most Wanted” List
“Do what is best, not for yourself, for once. Think about everyone else,” Chris Burns’ 19-year-old son pleaded to his father via The Daily Beast.
Multi-Million Dollar Scheme
Former youth pastor turned financial advisor Chris Burns remains at large since going on the run in September of 2020 to avoid a Securities Exchange Commission investigation into his businesses.
Despite his fugitive status, the Justice Department recently indicted Burns with several more charges on top of the $12 million default judgment he received from the SEC.
Burns allegedly sold false promissory notes to investors across Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida. The SEC claims he told the investors they were participating in a “peer to peer” lending program where businesses that needed capital would borrow money and then repay it with interest as high as 20%. Burns allegedly also reassured investors that the businesses had collateral so the investment was low-risk.
The SEC says that Burns instead took that money for personal use.
Burns began his adult life as a youth pastor back in 2007 before transitioning into financial planning a few years later. By 2017, he launched his own radio show, The Chris Burns Show, which was funded by one of his companies, Dynamic Money – where every week Burns would “unpack how this week’s headlines practically impact your life, wallet, and future,” according to the description. He also frequently appeared on television and online, talking about finances and politics.
The SEC alleges that he used his public appearances to elevate his status as a financial advisor and maximize his reach to investors.
His family told The Daily Beast that he became obsessed with success and he reportedly bought hand-made clothes, a million-dollar lakehouse, a boat, several cars, and took his family on several trips to Disney World. His eldest son and wife said that Burns was paying thousands of dollars a day for VIP tours and once paid for the neighbors to come along.
Then in September 2020, he reportedly told his wife that he was being investigated by the Securities Exchange Commission but he told her not to worry.
The day that he was supposed to turn over his business documents to the SEC, he disappeared, telling his wife he was just going to take a trip to North Carolina to tell his parents about the investigation. Then, the car was found abandoned in a parking lot with several cashier’s checks totaling $78,000
FBI’s Most Wanted
The default judgment in the SEC complaint orders Burns, if he’s ever found, to pay $12 million to his victims, as well as over $650,000 in a civil penalty. Additionally, a federal criminal complaint charged him with mail fraud. Burns is currently on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.
Last week, the Justice Department indicted him on several other charges including 10 counts of wire fraud and two counts of mail fraud.
“Burns is charged for allegedly stealing millions of dollars from clients in an illegal investment fraud scheme,” Keri Farley, Special Agent in Charge of FBI Atlanta, said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “Financial crimes of this nature can cause significant disruptions to the lives of those who are victimized, and the FBI is dedicated to holding these criminals accountable.”
His family maintains that they knew nothing of Burns’ schemes. His wife reportedly returned over $300,000 that he had given to her.
She and their eldest son, who is now 19, told The Daily Beast they just want Burns to turn himself in, take responsibility for his actions, and try to help the people he hurt.
“Do what is best, not for yourself, for once. Think about everyone else,” Burns’ son said in a message to his father via The Daily Beast.