Families of wrongfully imprisoned men react to settlement

Families of wrongfully imprisoned men react to settlement
Phillip Bivens. Source: WDAM
Phillip Bivens. Source: WDAM
Bobby Ray Dixon. Source: WDAM
Bobby Ray Dixon. Source: WDAM
Larry Ruffin. Source: WDAM
Larry Ruffin. Source: WDAM
Eva Gail Patterson. Source: WDAM
Eva Gail Patterson. Source: WDAM

FORREST COUNTY, MS (WDAM) - The families of three men wrongfully convicted of rape and murder said they are happy with the $16.5 million settlement they are receiving from a federal civil rights lawsuit, but said no amount of money can take the place of their loved ones.

Larry Ruffin, Phillip Bivens and Bobby Ray Dixon were charged with the 1979 rape and murder of Forrest County resident Eva Gail Patterson. All three were sentenced to life in prison, but in 2010, The Innocence Project of New Orleans took on the case, tested DNA evidence collected from the victim and proved none of the men committed the crime.

"Mississippi has a cap on settlements, so the $16.5 million was a good settlement for Mississippi," said Teresa Strickland, Ruffin's sister. "The only thing about the settlement that's not likable with me and my family is, it would have been nice if my brother could have been here to enjoy. My mama said 'my son is truly at rest now.' We wished he'd have gotten a chance to hear 'Larry, all that time, you're free."

Ruffin died in prison in 2002.

"That day we got that dreaded call, when the officer called he said 'my friend,'" Strickland said as her voice cracked as she tried to fight back tears. "He said he (Ruffin) was fixing an air conditioning unit, and it shocked him. shocked him to the point it threw him into cardiac arrest. My brother fixed in stuff for prisoners. It's hot, hot in Parchman in the summertime. They would get fans, and he would wire them up, put them together and fix them. That was very, very, very hard to take, but that was the day God set him free."

Ruffin was posthumously exonerated in 2011, and Bivens and Dixon were exonerated in 2010. Despite the years that have passed since his imprisonment and death, Strickland still has strong memories of time spent in courtrooms and in prison visiting her brother.

"I was in the seventh grade maybe when all this occurred, but I remember it like..." Strickland said, trailing off. "When my mama went, we went. We went to every court trial. We'd sit there in the back just quiet.When he went to Parchman, most of the time we took two vehicles because there's so many of us. Through our visitations, going twice a month to Parchman, it was like a meet-and-greet thing. Like a friends and family day at church. At this time you could take lunch and just sit and enjoy. So my mama would cook up a big feast, and we'd have this picnic table at Parchman. It was like a family and friends day in Parchman. The only thing I didn't like is when we'd leave. It was very hard. Very hard. My brother used to say all the time, all the time, he'd say 'Mama, you ever think I'm going to get out of here?' And my mam would say 'yep. God knows your heart, and you will, son, one day you will be free.'"

Willie Dixon, Bobby Ray Dixon's brother, said not having to relive those kind of painful memories is one reason he is happy they no longer need to spend time in courtrooms.

"It's been a long process, you know tiresome," he said. "Then you kind of bring back old memories, thinking about our brother and stuff. I was more happy, overjoyed that they finally got everything settled."

Bobby Ray Dixon's sister, Brenda Dixon, also said the settlement brings her closure.

"I feel good about it, knowing that he's looking down on us smiling saying 'y'all go on with your life,'" she said. "I thank God for it, that it's all over with. Everybody can go on with their life, and the three men are going to rest in peace."

Willie Dixon said, "I feel like we can move on, but I know there's still going to be times it's going to be hard like the holidays coming around, his birthday coming around. But by the grace of God I know we're going to make it."

Strickland's only takeaway from the settlement is closure. She will not receive any money because she is Ruffin's half sister, and is therefore not entitled to settlement money under Mississippi law.

"My mama had 12 children, but all 12 of her children do not receive the settlement," Strickland said. "I am not one of the six that will receive the funds, but it doesn't bother me. With this settlement, we are all enriched. It's just the way it is. We were raised in church. We were raised to know that love comes from the heart. It doesn't come from a dollar bill. The ones that are getting it, I love them. They are my full brothers and sisters, but they need it. They need it."

While they appreciate the monetary compensation, all three siblings said they would rather be making new memories with their brothers instead of receiving money in their memory.

"It's not all about the settlement," Willie Dixon said. "I'd rather have him back than anything. We never really got a chance to really enjoy our brother like we wanted to."

Strickland said through tears, "Money can't replace it. Money can't replace the feeling that we feel to know that he sat behind bars in a maximum prison and didn't get to see his babies grow up."

Ruffin has two daughters and was the only one of three men who had children.

"He never got to take them to the park," Strickland said. "He never got to go to their graduation. One of my nieces is married. He didn't give her away. That kind of stuff you can't pay for. You just cannot pay for. I know money is good, but the love of money cannot bring back the love of a person."

Despite their tragedy, the families said they have been able to find love and support and honor their loved ones' memories together, and hope their story can help someone else in the future.

"The Ruffins (are) there for us, we'll be there for them," Brenda Dixon said. "The Bivens (are) there for us, we'll be there for them. We're all just three families being there for each other."

Willie Dixon said, "The main thing that I got from him (Bobby Ray), he said he didn't hate anybody, and we shouldn't, we don't, hate anybody. His name is not going to die. We're going to keep it alive, and we're going to tell everybody."

Strickland said, "That's the kind of love we need today. If you do somebody wrong, apologize. Go to them. Tell them you're sorry."

Willie Dixion said, "Maybe we can help somebody else that may be going through the same thing. Whatever you do, don't give up. If you're going through something and you know you didn't do it, it's not right. Don't give up. Just keep going. You've got to cross the finish line. You get to the finish line, you can't do anything but win."