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 be killed.
Dixon, who has lung cancer and a brain tumor, 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 gray 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. The sheriff's department arrested Ruffin first, and months later they apprehended Dixon and Bivens. All three men initially confessed and then recanted.
However, Bivens and Dixon later pleaded guilty to murder in 1980 and were sentenced to life in prison. They testified that Ruffin had actually raped and killed Patterson.
The Innocence Project filed a motion earlier this year to have DNA evidence tested. The semen from a rape kit on Patterson was run through an FBI database that matched it with Andrew Harris, a man already serving a life sentence for a rape that occurred in 1981.
Emily Maw, an Innocence Project attorney, told Helfrich false confessions were not uncommon. Sixty-three confessions have been proven false through DNA around the country since 1990, she said.
Bivens said he confessed because he didn't want to go to the gas chamber. He said he had been in Mississippi visiting relatives when the crime happened.
Court records show Dixon was considered mentally impaired because he had been kicked in the head by a horse as a child and suffered from seizures and memory loss.
District Attorney Jon Mark Weathers said he's struggled with the case because Bivens and Dixon's statements were used to convict Ruffin.
"I don't know what was running through Bivens' and Dixon's minds," said Weathers.
Weathers said his office has begun an investigation of Harris.