Jailhouse Salsa


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.

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.

“I remember clearly,” Ruiz says. “Arroz blanco, habichuelas, chuletas, tostones, ensalada, and a big glass of Pepsi. It was delicious.”

Then 24 and living at home, Ruiz describes himself as shy and reserved. Unlike other kids on his street, Ruiz grew his hair long, dressed all in black like a punk rocker, and listened to metal bands like Queensrÿche.

And like many of his friends, he started peddling drugs on the side. While Ruiz was dealing on street corners between shifts working odd jobs, Mirabal had emerged as a drug kingpin. As Mirabal would later confess to prosecutors, he was storing hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, kilos of cocaine and crack, and caches of machine guns and semiautomatic weapons in a “safe house.” (Mirabal served 43 months behind bars and is now free. In his affidavit he claims he knows Ruiz; Ruiz denies that he knows Mirabal.)

According to the affidavit, the motives behind the murder Mirabal ordered were a combination of street justice and deterrence. In the fall of 1992, Mirabal states that he suspected one of his workers, Felix Emmanuel, had conspired to steal $150,000, three kilos of cocaine, and several 9mm handguns from Mirabal’s safe house. In retaliation, Mirabal claims in his affidavit, he paid a hit man $8,000 to have Emmanuel killed. Mirabal claims he knew the hit man he hired only by his street name—”Shorty.” Mirabal paid the man $4,000 up front, his affidavit states. The day after the murder, he received a phone call from Shorty: “It’s done.” He agreed to meet Shorty in a Spanish restaurant, where he paid him another $4,000.

When Ruiz heard the gunshot, he claims he got up from his mother’s kitchen table and walked outside his building to join a mob of people moving toward the crime scene. (His mother; his sister-in-law, Jacqueline Ruiz; and his sister, Hilda Rodriguez, all testified at the trial that Ruiz was home with them at the time of the shooting.) Ruiz says he then followed the crowd over to Amsterdam Avenue in front of a bus stop. Emmanuel was lying in the bus lane. He had been shot once in the head with a low-caliber pistol fired six to eight inches away, the medical examiner later determined.

At the crime scene, little evidence was recovered. No gun. No bullet. No fingerprints. Four days later, a 15-year-old girl and her mother walked into Harlem’s 30th Precinct. The girl, Nilda Alomar, claimed to be a good friend of Emmanuel, and she told police she was in the street the night he was killed and had seen the man who shot him. According to the police report, Alomar said she recognized the killer, having seen him around the neighborhood. She said he “was wearing a black vest, black jeans, and baseball cap. In his right hand he had a black pistol. . . . I know his name to be Harry.”

The case went cold. It was one of about 1,900 reported homicides in 1993, 56 of them reported in Harlem’s 30th Precinct. In the months before Ruiz was first arrested, detectives were assigned to review old murder cases. Then Ruiz was spotted wearing clothes identical to those that Alomar had described, according to police. The arresting officer said Ruiz wore a black vest with no shirt, black pants, and a backward baseball cap.

During questioning, Ruiz says detectives offered him a deal—less prison time in exchange for a guilty plea for Emmanuel’s murder. Ruiz refused. “Why am I gonna try and make a deal for something I didn’t do?” Ruiz recalls asking. “They had nothing. They were fishing.”

The cops did have something, though. They had Alomar, who later picked Ruiz out of a lineup. In that lineup, Ruiz says, he was flanked by scruffy, homeless men who looked nothing like him.

At the time of Ruiz’s trial, in the fall of 1994, criminal courts were flooded with violent gangs like the Wild Cowboys and Latin Kings. The prosecutor, Helen Sturm, now a Family Court judge, centered her case on Alomar, who told jurors her story. Alomar talked about going out the night of the murder, partying with two 15-year-old friends. Then, Alomar claimed, walking in the street that night, from a distance of about 40 feet, she watched Ruiz approach Emmanuel from behind. He took a gun from his waistband, put it to Emmanuel’s head, and pulled the trigger.

When asked to identify Ruiz sitting in front of her in the courtroom, Alomar, who claimed to have known Ruiz for about a year, had difficulty.

From the trial transcript:

Sturm: “I would ask you to look around the courtroom now and tell us if you see Harry Ruiz in the courtroom.”

Alomar: “Yes I do.”

Sturm: “And can you indicate where, please?”

Alomar: “There.”

At this point, instead of pointing at Ruiz, Alomar pointed to the back of the room, to another person. The trial judge, Alfred Kleiman, then asked Alomar to stand up on the witness stand and point to Ruiz.

The second time Alomar got it right.

Explaining her mistake, Alomar said: “He looked like him. I just got confused. . . . He looks like Harry.”

During a cross-examination, Ruiz’s court-appointed lawyer, Thomas Dunn, asked Alomar: “There was doubt when you were asked this morning to identify Harry Ruiz, wasn’t there: yes or no?”

Alomar: “Yes.”

Dunn: “In fact, you pointed out someone in the back of the courtroom; isn’t that a fact?”

Alomar: “He looks like Harry.”

In his interview with the
, Ruiz says that after all his failed appeals it may be impossible to convince anyone he is innocent. To keep his mind clear and emotions stable, he sticks to his Green Haven routine. Alma Libre practice every Monday, he has a $7-a-week job as a copy clerk, and every other week, his fiancée, Rivera, takes a bus upstate to visit. They don’t talk about the crime or developments in his case, she says, but of marriage, family, and the promise of a new life. Because of prison restrictions, Ruiz has never taken a bite of one of Rivera’s beef patties.

“I’m dying to taste them,” he says. Ruiz is eligible for parole in 2025. Wedding plans are pending.