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‘They made a big mistake:’ NYC man exonerated after 25 years behind bars for sexual assault

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NEW YORK -- A New York man was cleared after a wrongful conviction for sexual assault, but unfortunately, the exoneration came after 25 years behind bars. Rafael Ruiz walked out of court a free man on Tuesday, Jan. 28.

Ruiz embraced his family after a judge vacated all charges against him -- ending a 36-year fight to clear his name. The now-60-year-old Bronx man served 25 years in prison for a sexual assault that he didn't commit.

His best friend, Thomas Curry, said he always believed Ruiz was innocent.

"I knew they made a big mistake," said Curry. "Back in those days, the police weren't really investigating things that they should have been doing."

The alleged attack occurred in 1984 in East Harlem. Again and again, prosecutors pressured Ruiz to take a plea deal -- at one point, offering a sentence of only 1.5 years to three years, but he refused.

"I didn't want to take no deal because I'm not a criminal," said Ruiz.

He was convicted in 1985, sent to prison, and denied parole again and again. He served his full sentence.

"I was thinking about my freedom the whole time I was in there," said Ruiz.

More than a decade ago, the Conviction Integrity Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney's Office referred the case to The Innocence Project.

The prosecution's case was based on a single, and ultimately faulty, witness identification.

"I'm just happy for him," said Michael Benvie, private investigator. "That's all I'd like to say. I'm just very happy for him."

The Manhattan District Attorney's Office said a prosecutor's job isn't just to seek convictions but to seek justice -- to improve prosecutorial practices on the front end and prevent wrongful convictions from happening in the first place.

"One thing that is just so shocking is how exhaustingly difficult it is to get an innocent person out of prison, and how in a second, an innocent person can be convicted," said Seema Saifee, senior staff attorney with The Innocence Project.

Ruiz's court records were sealed, and his name was removed from all sex offender registries -- but his family said it's hard not to be angry. His mother died, and he lost a quarter-century of his life.

"I feel like I was reborn again and can start all over with my brother," said Maria Ruiz, Rafael's sister.

Ruiz said he was looking forward to spending time with family -- and maybe, finding a woman to settle down with.

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