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Man Wrongfully Convicted of Rape Exonerated 35 Years Later

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  • 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.

Name Cleared

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. 

See what others are saying: (ABC) (New York Times) (NBC)

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Florida Cracks Down on “Vaccine Tourism”

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  • Florida is now requiring that people show proof of either full-time or part-time residency in the state in order to get vaccinated against COVID-19. 
  • The state has been hit with “vaccine tourism” as many people, predominantly wealthy individuals, fly to the state from other parts of the U.S. and abroad just to get the shot. 
  • So far, nearly 41,000 of the 1.3 million doses administered in Florida went to out-of-staters, though it is unclear if all those people were tourists or if this figure includes some part-time residents.

Florida Requires Proof of Residency

Florida is cracking down on “vaccine tourism” and requiring that people show proof of either full-time or part-time residency in the state in order to get a COVID-19 shot.

Previously the state was allowing anyone 65 and older, including non-residents, to get the vaccine. This resulted in people flying to the Sunshine State from across the U.S. and abroad just for the purpose of receiving it. 

According to state data, nearly 41,000 of the 1.3 million doses Florida has administered have gone to out-of-staters. It is unclear if all these out-of-staters are tourists or if this figure includes some part-time residents. 

Now, people must show a form of identification like a driver’s license or mortgage payment to receive it. Exceptions will be made for healthcare workers. 

Vaccine Supply Continues to Be Limited

Wealthy people in particular were quick to schedule travel plans to Florida for this reason. According to the Wall Street Journal, there was an influx of Canadians booking private jets to Florida. Some were looking to book flights there and back on the same day, leaving just enough time for them to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. 

Meanwhile, people in Florida and across the country are waiting in long lines and struggling to book appointments on glitching websites to get their shots. Vaccine supply continues to be incredibly limited and not everyone in high-risk groups have received them.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said this rule is not made to impact snowbirds, people who live in Florida during the winter to escape cold weather up north. 

“They go to doctors here or whatever, that’s fine, DeSantis said, according to CNN. “What we don’t want is tourists, foreigners. We want to put seniors first, but we obviously want to put people that live here first in line.”

See what others are saying: (Wall Street Journal) (CNN) (Travel + Leisure)

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Amanda Gorman Wows the Nation With “The Hill We Climb”

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  • Amanda Gorman, a 22-year-old poet, impressed the nation when she read “The Hill We Climb” at President Biden’s inauguration, making her the youngest inaugural poet in the nation’s history.
  • Gorman’s said the Jan. 6 attack on the nation’s Capitol inspired her to focus on a message of hope, community, and healing in her poem.
  • Big names like Oprah Winfrey, Anderson Cooper, Barack Obama, and Lin-Manuel Miranda have all praised her work.

Amanda Gorman Becomes Youngest Inaugural Poet

Inaugural poet Amanda Gorman wowed the nation on Wednesday as she spoke of healing, unity, hope, and what it means to be American while reading her poem, “The Hill We Climb.”

At 22-years-old Gorman is the youngest inaugural poet in the nation’s history. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she was the youth poet laureate of Los Angeles in 2014 at the age of 16. She then became the first national youth poet laureate in 2017. 

Now, her books are topping Amazon’s Best Sellers list and they are not even scheduled to be released until the fall.

First Lady Dr. Jill Biden became a fan of Gorman after watching her give a reading at the Library of Congress. She then suggested that Gorman be a part of the ceremony. 

“Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true: That even as we grieved, we grew. That even as we hurt, we hoped That even as we tired, we tried,” Gorman recited during inauguration. “That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious. Not because we will never again know defeat but because we will never again sow division.”

Like President Biden, Gorman has struggled with a speech impediment and has been open about her experience overcoming it. She actually used poetry as a tool to correct it. First, she used it as a way of expressing herself without having to speak. Then she used it to bring her poems to life.

“Once I arrived at the point in my life in high school, where I said, ‘you know what? Writing my poems on the page isn’t enough for me,” she told CBS News. “I have to give them breath, and life, I have to perform them as I am.’ That was the moment that I was able to grow past my speech impediment.”

What Inspired “The Hill We Climb”

Gorman said the inaugural committee gave her freedom and flexibility when it came to choosing what to write about. She was well on her way before the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Those events then influenced her writing. 

“It energized me even more to believe that much more firmly in a message of hope, community and healing. I felt like that was the type of poem that I needed to write and it was the type of poem that the country and the world needed to hear,” she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.  

That message came across clearly and the insurrection was depicted in part of “The Hill We Climb.”

“It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit. It’s the past we step into and how we repair it. We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it, would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy and this effort very nearly succeeded,” she said. “But while democracy can be periodically delayed it can never be permanently defeated. In this truth, in this faith we trust. For while we have our eyes on the future history has its eyes on us.”

Nation Impressed by Gorman

“Wow…Wow, I just, wow you’re awesome,” Cooper said when closing his interview with her. “I am so transfixed.” 

Lin-Manuel Miranda also cheered Gorman on. “The Hill We Climb” notably references a line of scripture that appears in a “Hamilton” song. Gorman also said she used to sing the song “Aaron Burr, Sir” to help her say her R sounds and correct her speech impediment. 

“I have never been prouder to see another young woman rise!” Oprah Winfrey wrote. “Brava Brava Amanda Gorman! Maya Angelou is cheering—and so am I.”

Winfrey also gave Gorman a ring with a caged bird on it—a reference to the famous Angelou poem— which Gorman wore during the inauguration. 

Actor Mark Ruffalo joined the onslaught of praise, saying that her words will lead the nation. 

Former President Barack Obama echoed that idea as well, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Gorman promised to run for president one day. 

See what others are saying: (CBS News) (New York Times) (Los Angeles Times)

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SAT Drops Subject Tests and Optional Essay Section

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  • The College Board will discontinue SAT subject tests effective immediately and will scrap the optional essay section in June. 
  • The organization cited the coronavirus pandemic as part of the reason for accelerating these changes.
  • Regarding subject tests, the College Board said the other half of the decision rested on the fact that Advanced Placement tests are now more accessible to low-income students and students of color, making subject tests unnecessary. 
  • It also said it plans to launch a digital version of the SAT in the near future, despite failing to implement such a plan last year after a previous announcement.

College Board Ends Subject Tests and Optional Essay

College Board announced Tuesday that it will scrap the SAT’s optional essay section, as well as subject tests.

Officials at the organization cited the COVID-19 pandemic as part of the reason for these changes, saying is has “accelerated a process already underway at the College Board to simplify our work and reduce demands on students.”

The decision was also made in part because Advanced Placement tests, which College Board also administers, are now available to more low-income students and students of color. Thus, College Board has said this makes SAT subject tests unnecessary. 

While subject tests will be phased out for international students, they have been discontinued effective immediately in the U.S. 

Regarding the optional essay, College Board said high school students are now able to express their writing skills in a variety of ways, a factor which has made the essay section less necessary.

With several exceptions, it will be discontinued in June.

The Board Will Implement an Online SAT Test

In its announcement, College Board also said it plans to launch a revised version of the SAT that’s aimed at making it “more flexible” and “streamlined” for students to take the test online.

In April 2020, College Board announced it would be launching a digital SAT test in the fall if schools didn’t reopen. The College Board then backtracked on its plans for a digital test in June, before many schools even decided they would remain closed.

According to College Board, technological challenges led to the decision to postpone that plan.

For now, no other details about the current plan have been released, though more are expected to be revealed in April. 

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (NPR) (The New York Times)

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