Jailhouse Salsa

The Bandleader Didn't Commit the Murder, Affidavit Claims

  Stormville, New York— Inside the concrete walls of the behemoth Green Haven Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison hidden away in this bleak upstate town, Harry Ruiz, inmate No. 95-A-2026, is sitting in a barren conference room talking about music. Salsa music. Congas, timbales, guitars—Ruiz plays them all. He leads nine other convicts in a jailhouse band he named Alma Libre.

"It means your soul is free," Ruiz said in an interview last month. "Why did I name the band that? Because that's the way I feel. . . . I had nothing to do with this."

Ruiz is talking about murder. It was a shooting that happened on August 29, 1993, during the city's gang wars and crack feuds: one low-level dealer, standing at a bus stop in Harlem one summer night, struck with a single bullet. Now serving a 31-years-to-life sentence for the killing, Ruiz, 37, insists he was wrongly convicted. But not many people believe him. Ruiz's appeals in the state and federal court systems have been denied.

Harry Ruiz, inmate No. 95-A-2026, might get a chance to prove he's innocent
photo: Steven Sunshine
Harry Ruiz, inmate No. 95-A-2026, might get a chance to prove he's innocent

Now, however, he might have a chance. Michael Race, a private investigator and former NYPD homicide detective, has found a fresh lead that he hopes may prompt a judge to reopen the Ruiz case. The new evidence comes in the form of an affidavit from Juan Mirabal, a former Harlem drug lord who became a cooperating witness for federal prosecutors. Facing a life sentence after his arrest in 2000 for running a vast, violent drug enterprise, Mirabal opted to work with the feds, and according to prosecutors, his cooperation has led to convictions in eight major cases.

Mirabal not only identified key players in the drug trade, he also claimed that Ruiz is innocent. In a signed affidavit dated April 26, 2004, and obtained by the Voice, Mirabal, 31, confessed to hiring a man other than Ruiz to kill a wayward employee, the same victim that Ruiz was convicted of killing.

Ruiz's family first learned about Mirabal's confession when two police detectives visited the Harlem apartment of Ruiz's mother, Gladys Rodriguez, and told her about Mirabal's cooperation deal with the feds. The Ruiz family then decided to hire Race, who specializes in wrongful-conviction cases. To pay the investigator, Ruiz's fiancée, Lizzette Rivera, an old friend of Ruiz's who fell in love with him over the course of bimonthly prison visits, embarked on a home-cooked fundraising campaign, selling jewelry at raffle sales and hawking her specialty beef patties, with minced onions and green peppers and her own secret Spanish seasoning. Rivera estimates she raised $1,000 to pay Race, while other family members chipped in about $2,500.

"I know Harry will be coming home," Rivera says. "I just know. I can feel it."

In the next few weeks, Mirabal's statements are expected to be part of a new appeal being prepared on Ruiz's behalf by Ron Kuby, the civil rights attorney and radio personality, who has taken on the case pro bono. While these statements about the murder are inconclusive (Mirabal claims not to know the full name of the killer he hired), Kuby hopes they will convince a judge to reassess the evidence against Ruiz, who was convicted solely on eyewitness testimony from a 15-year-old girl.

Without physical, biological, or DNA evidence, which has been responsible for overturning so many convictions throughout the country in recent years, Kuby says Ruiz is similar to scores of other inmates who were convicted on weak evidence or by mistaken identifications. Since Ruiz's conviction in 1994, there have been 32 exonerations in New York State, according to Northwestern University School of Law's Center on Wrongful Convictions. Of that lot, about 75 percent of the bad cases rested on shoddy testimony from eyewitnesses—a problem Kuby argues was more prevalent a decade ago.

"Harry Ruiz is a product of a different time in New York," Kuby says. "He is a product of the drug wars of the late '80s and early '90s, a product of three times the number of murders, hardly the same number of cops, and sloppy work by law enforcement all around."

Sherri Hunter, a spokeswoman for Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau, declined to comment on the Ruiz case. The files have been archived and would take weeks to retrieve and analyze. Three former prosecutors who handled Ruiz's case for the D.A. did not return calls. A fourth former prosecutor, who would not speak for attribution, says it's unlikely a judge would reopen Ruiz's case, because former dealers like Mirabal are unreliable. Why would a judge reverse conviction on a 12-year-old murder because of new claims by a former Harlem crack lord, the former prosecutor asks, when 12 jurors found Ruiz guilty?

Kuby says Mirabal's track record as a star informant for the feds should be enough to push the D.A.'s office to reinvestigate. "This man's word was the golden standard of truth for the federal government and resulted in major convictions," Kuby says. "Now, all of sudden, why should his word be insufficient to cast doubt on the conviction of Harry Ruiz?"

Wearing an olive-green prison jumpsuit in Green Haven, Ruiz says that when he heard the gunshot on the night of the murder he was sitting in his mother's kitchen about to eat a late dinner.

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