DNA releases men after 30 years in prison

Phillip Bivens
Phillip Bivens
Bobby Ray Dixon
Bobby Ray Dixon

By Mike McDaniel - bio | email | Twitter

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Thirty years led up to about 4 seconds.

"I am ordering that Mr. Dixon and Mr. Bivens be released," said circuit judge Bob Helfrich before a packed courtroom Thursday morning.

With that, Phillip Bivens and Bobby Ray Dixon are now free men, thanks to DNA.

"Thank God, thank God," said Bivens.

"I didn't think it would happen," said Dixon.

Both men, along with Larry Ruffin were convicted of the 1979 rape and murder of Eva Gayle Patterson of Forrest County. All three men were given life sentences. Ruffin died while in prison, family members say maintaining his innocence the entire time.

Now, new DNA evidence shows just that, three men wrongfully convicted.

"It is a tragedy anytime DNA demonstrates that the wrong person is in prison.... It is a tragedy for his family, tragedy for the families here and it is a tragedy for the family of the victim," said Rob McDuff, attorney for the three men.

"The saddest case that perhaps I've ever dealt with, it was just a tragedy," said Emily Maw, also an attorney for the three men.

McDuff and Maw, with the Innocence Project out of New Orleans say DNA taken from the crime scene doesn't match Bivens', Ruffin's or Dixon's, but instead,  it does match the DNA of Andrew Harris, who is already in prison serving a life sentence for another Forrest County Rape which happened two years after Patterson's.

"It is horrific that the real perpetrator has let three innocent men sit in prison for 30 years," said Maw.

The new evidence was a surprise to just about everyone involved, including the family of Eva Gayle Patterson.

"It was a complete shock at first," said Dwayne Patterson, who was married to Eva Gayle and is now having to relive the night his wife was murdered.

"It caught me off guard. Thirty years I've been believing that they did it and it's like ok, now what," said Patterson.

Although he says he'll never get over it, Dwayne says he and his family have learned to live with the tragedy and support the courts decision.

"If they were innocent, they needed to be released," said Patterson.

During the hearing district attorney Jon Mark Weathers told the court a fact finding mission in the case was difficult at best. He says that's because files are missing, including the master file at the state crime lab. Even so, Weathers says he believes the prosecutors at the time were doing what they believed.

"From the state's standpoint I have to believe that two very good prosecutors would have approached this case differently if the DNA evidence had been available," said Weathers.

But it wasn't and the convictions were based mainly on written statements, confessions and guilty pleas from both Bivens and Dixon. Bivens says he was coerced into giving the false statements with the threat of the gas chamber, but there was no physical violence.

When asked if he was ever physically assaulted, Bivens said not that he could remember.

McDuff and Maw say false statements and confessions, for whatever reason, happen more than one would think.

"It really doesn't matter what caused the confessions, what caused the guilty pleas. We just know they're not accurate, they're not true, we know that now because of the DNA evidence," said McDuff.

Judge Helfrich tossed out those confessions and pleas, releasing Bivens and Dixon under their own recognizance pending a review of the new evidence by a grand jury. As for Ruffin, his exoneration on behalf of his family will be taken up after Judge Helfrich is able to review it.

"So there really aren't any winners here, there's no great victory. I think there is a sad recognition on our part that there was a mistake 30 years ago," said Maw.

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