Family opens park in memory of wrongfully convicted brother

EASTABUCHIE, MS (WDAM) - The family of one of three men wrongfully convicted in a Forrest County rape and murder opened a park in memory of their loved one Friday.

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. Ruffin died in prison in 2002 and was exonerated posthumously on February 10, 2011.

Teresa Ruffin Strickland, Ruffin's sister, said the family used its portion of a $16.5 million dollar settlement from a federal civil rights lawsuit to build the Larry D. Ruffin Memorial Park at 13 North Eastabuchie Road in Jones County.

"I know parks have been made in people's name that do great things," Strickland said. "To us, my brother gave the greatest sacrifice, and that was his life. So to us, it is very, very important to let him know that his name was not in vain."

Hilda Johnson, Ruffin's oldest sister, said honoring his life was the only reason the family —Larry's mother, siblings, children, grandchildren, cousins —wanted a physical memorial in his name.

"It's the only reason we here," Johnson said. "So thankful to have him exonerated from the crime that he never committed. Matter of fact, he never did met the lady, but he suffered. I am thankful. So grateful."

Ruffin has two daughters and was the only one of three men who had children. Strickland said she chose a community park as a memorial because Ruffin was never able to take his own children to a park and to give other children in his community a needed place to play. One of Ruffin's daughters, Nikki Strong, was at the park's ribbon cutting Friday.

"It's just wonderful," Strickland said. "As you can see, there's a lot of kids that's in this community. Most of the time, they're in the street, running this street, cars are going. Now, hopefully, they can just walk down the road to the park and just enjoy and have a good time."

By creating a space for others to laugh and play, Strickland is also honoring her brother's fun-loving personality.

"He was a joyful person," she said. "As you look around you see the birds because he loved red birds. He was always cheerful and happy, so the park is a thing that's always giving of fun. We wanted something here, in my brother's town, well, Eastabuchie, where he was raised to represent and stand here forever for the community, for the kids."

Strickland said she is also working to add a computer lab to the park, so students can do homework after school. The family also started a college scholarship fund in Ruffin's name for graduating high school seniors.

"I know he's looking down on us, and I know he's proud of us," Strickland said crying. "I know it. He's not here to show it, but I know it. I know it. I put my all into it just so he could say, 'Sis, I'm proud of you.'"

Johnson said, "We are thankful. We're grateful. If he only could be here, you'd know how grateful, but he didn't make it. So, we accept that that he is in the kingdom watching us right now."