Forrest County suit claims coerced confessions

FORREST COUNTY, MS (WDAM) - The estates of three men that were exonerated after spending a combined 82 years behind bars for rape and murder, have filed suit against those who they say were responsible for wrongfully arresting and imprisoning their loved ones in the first place.

Larry Ruffin, Phillip Bivens, and Bobby Ray Dixon were sentenced to life in prison for the 1979 rape and murder of Eatonville housewife Eva Gayle Patterson.  30 years later, DNA evidence along with the Innocence Project, proved the men had nothing to do with the crime.  Instead, the DNA pointed to Andrew Harris, who lived a half mile from the victim.

Harris is currently serving life in prison for a rape he committed two years after the Patterson murder. 

Ruffin was sentenced to life in prison by a jury in 1980. Largely because of videotaped confessions given by the three men who told of their role in the crime. The three tried to recant their confessions in court, but it wasn't enough to persuade the jury.

A 70-page lawsuit filed in federal court in Hattiesburg Wednesday, attempts to answer why the three men originally confessed.

The lawsuit claims Forrest County, Hattiesburg police department, and nearly a dozen former deputy sheriffs from 30 years ago coerced false confessions, fabricated evidence, and suppressed evidence to gain convictions.

According to the suit, Larry Ruffin, then 19-years-old, was the first arrested.  The lawsuit says Ruffin was beaten, punched, slapped, and threatened with death for 7 hours before giving a false confession.

The suit also alleges law enforcement knew their case was weak so 16 months later they arrested Dixon and Bivens as accomplices.  The suit said they too were beaten and threatened with the gas chamber if they did not testify against Ruffin.  Dixon and Bivens entered into a plea bargain agreement in exchange for life in prison but recanted their stories at trial.

Ultimately, the jury could not agree on the death penalty for Ruffin, so he was sentenced to life in prison.  He later died in prison in 2002 from an electrical shock while working on a prison fan.

Dixon and Bivens were freed in 2010 after DNA evidence proved their innocence.  Dixon died just 5 weeks later from lung cancer.

All together, the lawsuit claims 16 violations of constitutional and civil rights. The suit is requesting a trial by jury and monetary damages to be determined by a jury.

Phillip Bivens is the only survivor of the three, but he may have as little as two months to live.  His doctor in Louisiana says Bivens suffers from stage four liver cancer.  Consequently, a  hearing has been set for February 13 to take Bivens deposition since he may not live long enough to testify at trial.

Andrew Harris, the man that DNA points to as the rapist and murderer, was indicted the day Ruffin, Dixon, and Bivens were exonerated.  The current district attorney decided in November, 2012 not to prosecute Harris after consulting with the victim's family.  It was passed to the inactive file, meaning he could be prosecuted if he is ever released from serving his sentenced for a separate 1982 rape conviction.

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