The old courthouse on Main Street in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, had big white columns and high, wide front steps. A few police officers were gathered at the foot of the steps in sunglasses, blue t-shirts with STRIKE FORCE written on them in big yellow letters, their badges and guns prominent on their hips.
Inside, there was no guard and no metal detector, though the squat, ugly, newer courthouse across the street had both. A metal detector in the old courthouse would’ve added a modern touch; as it was, the floor and the wooden banister along the stairway that led up to the courtrooms were polished, and it seemed like it had probably looked the same for a hundred years.
Upstairs, in a big courtroom with a high ceiling, something happened that probably hadn’t happened much in that building: two men who had each served 30 years in Parchman Penitentiary were being released because it had been proven they were not guilty of the crime for which they’d been convicted. A third man, wrongfully convicted with them, had died in prison in 2002. The dead inmate’s family was there, probably 15 or 20 strong, in gray t-shirts with his name on them: RUFFIN.
The courtroom was very crowded. More police in STRIKE FORCE t-shirts stood around the edges. One of the inmates, Phillip Bivens, sat at the defense lawyers’ table in his red prison jumpsuit. The other inmate, Bobby Ray Dixon, was in the front row of the gallery; he’d been let out of prison a week or so before on a “medical”: he has lung cancer, which has spread to his brain, so the state, on “compassionate” grounds, had let him go home while they figured out what to do—sensitive, apparently, to how it would look if an innocent man died in prison after they had been handed the DNA results proving his innocence. And how to deal with the humiliating information that DNA had not only cleared Mr. Bivens, Mr. Ruffin, and Mr. Dixon, but had pinpointed the actual killer—who was already in Parchman for a rape that had happened a few blocks away from and two years after the crime for which the three innocent men had been convicted. The victim of that rape, quite possibly, owes her nightmare to the shoddy police and prosecutorial work that had put the wrong men in prison and let the right man stay free.
(credit: Thomas K. Lowenstein)
In the front row of the gallery, behind the prosecution table, sat the husband of Eva Gail Patterson, the white woman whom the three African-American men had been convicted of raping and murdering. After the hearing he told a local news crew how shocking it was, how hard to imagine that after 30 years of thinking these men had done it, he had to change that image now. And how surprising it was, how sudden. And how important it was that they be set free if they were innocent.
The hearing itself was fairly quick. When the judge, looking as if he had a bad case of indigestion, set aside the verdicts in the cases of the three men, the Ruffins family members burst into applause. The judge gaveled them silent and said there would be no outbursts in his court. He said he was letting Mr. Bivens and Mr. Dixon go on their own recognizance, until a grand jury could consider the new information and decide what to do. He didn’t apologize to the men on behalf of the state.
Then the hearing was over. The judge came down and shook hands with the two men, not saying anything.
Mr. Dixon’s family surrounded him and he walked slowly, unsteadily, out of the court room, using a cane. He spoke with a couple of reporters and with some of the Ruffins family.
Up by the defense table, Mr. Bivens was surrounded, too; someone from the NAACP was leaning in, speaking to him intently, stuffing an NAACP card in his breast pocket. Reporters talked to him. Then he was taken back to be processed for release; the judge ordered the sheriff’s office to get him some clothes, since all he had was his prison jumpsuit.
(credit: Thomas K. Lowenstein)
The courtroom gradually emptied, and we went out on the wide front steps to wait for Mr. Bivens. He had no family nearby, nowhere to go, and no money, so he was going down to New Orleans to stay with a group called Resurrection After Exoneration (RAE), a non-profit founded by an exoneree who wanted to help the newly exonerated make their way back into society.
The day was hot and clear. Mr. Dixon and his family went with the Ruffins family to pray and release balloons at Mr. Ruffin’s grave. Above the courthouses on both sides of the street, the American flag hung loosely, entwined with the Mississippi state flag, which still has the Confederate battle flag in it. Every once in a while a breeze would come along and the two flags, American and Confederate, would flap together a bit. Just outside the courthouse was the statue commemorating the brave soldiers who had given their lives in the cause of the Confederacy.
After fifteen or twenty minutes, we got word that Mr. Bivens was being released from a building around the corner. We got there just in time to see a deputy taking off his handcuffs and handing him the white laundry bag with all his things in it—two bibles, some sandals, some socks. We all milled around as he talked to reporters again for a while. He was wearing a new t-shirt and pants; the NAACP card still stuck out of his pocket. At one point he was standing a couple of steps up, by himself, looking around at the day while we all looked at him. People said encouraging things to him.
Old Courthouse, Hattiesburg, MS
(credit: Kristen Wenstrom)
We decided to take him to lunch, so a group of us walked back, past the Confederate monument, past the old courthouse, to a small diner across the street. I asked Mr. Bivens what he most wanted for lunch and he said, “Fried Chicken.”
We took over a few tables in a small back room at the diner. Mr. Bivens’ sister, in California and unable to make it for the hearing, called on someone’s cell phone; we showed Mr. Bivens how to use it and he tried to talk to her but the call was dropped. He ordered a root beer. He couldn’t read the menu because he’d left his glasses in the jail, so he and his lawyer decided they’d go back after lunch to get them. The diner couldn’t make him fried chicken, they said, so we ordered him chicken tenders, a double order, with French fries.
As all of our lunches came in, scattershot, we talked in groups. Mr. Bivens was quiet, smiling sometimes, answering questions briefly when asked, shaking hands. What do you most want to do tonight? Sleep. Oh, you must be tired. Mmm-hmmm.
When his plate of food came, there was way too much; he smiled and shook his head, and we told him we’d thought it better to have too much than too little. Then, without a word, he bowed his head, and his lips moved as he said grace, silently. Those of us who had started eating stopped; those of us who were talking stopped. We watched his lips move. When he was finished and started eating, we all did.
Thomas K. Lowenstein is a writer, journalist, editor, and policy strategist. With a special interest in helping those wrongly convicted of a crime and in campaigning against the death penalty, he has worked tirelessly to focus attention on inequities in the American criminal justice system. Born in New York, educated in Boston, Mr. Lowenstein now lives in New Orleans with his wife and daughter. He is the author of the novel, THE GHOST DETECTIVE.
All opinions expressed by Thomas K. Lowenstein are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.