NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – At 69 years of age, Earl Ruffin, a native of Suffolk, closely resembles the Earl Ruffin of 1981 whose life was turned upside down because of a single ride on an elevator.

Ruffin was employed as a maintenance worker at the Eastern Virginia Medical Authority when he shared an elevator ride with a petite young woman on property that is now known as Eastern Virginia Medical School.

After the elevator ride, the woman called Norfolk police to report she had found the man who raped her weeks earlier in her apartment in the Ghent section of Norfolk.

Ruffin was called to the Authority’s security office where officers made him aware that a Norfolk Police officer wanted to speak to him about a crime.

Once in the detective division, Ruffin learned he was under suspicion for a rape that occurred on Westover Avenue. Initially, he wasn’t concerned since he had never seen the woman before the elevator ride and he had, what he thought, was an air-tight alibi.

After an interview with police, Ruffin was arrested after the victim identified him a second time as the person who attacked her. Ruffin was lined up with other Black men and the victim pointed to Ruffin as the rapist. Ruffin said he asked the detective why he was selected in the live lineup.

“Did she say anything distinctive about why she picked me out of the lineup,” Ruffin said. “She said, ‘I can tell the way you hold your head.’ I said (to the detective), ‘What? You are going to arrest me for that?’ And he said we have to.”

After three trials, Ruffin was convicted of rape and several other charges and sentenced to five life terms.

In 2002, Ruffin petitioned the court for another examination of DNA evidence from his case. His conviction was based on a simple secretion-type test and the victim’s testimony. He recalled the evening he learned freedom was near.

“Later on that night about nine o’clock he (my attorney) called back to the institution. He said, ‘Guess what buddy? Are you sitting down?’ He said ‘you are coming home tomorrow,'” Ruffin said.

The next day, 10 on Your Side was outside the Southampton Correctional Center, when Ruffin was freed after 21 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

At the time of his release, more than 100 prisoners in the country had been cleared by new DNA testing. In an interview with 10 On Your Side the day he was released, Ruffin addressed the rape victim.

“I don’t fault you; I don’t blame you. It was just an honest mistake,” said Ruffin before a group of reporters and loved ones. He also shared a letter of apology written by the rape victim.

In the waning days of Black History Month 2023, curious members of the book club at Horace Downing Senior Center were anxious to hear from Ruffin. His late wife, Magnolia Holiday, chronicled his case in a book titled “Why Me? When It Could’ve Been You!”

(WAVY Photo – Regina Mobley)

The leader of the book club in Berkley introduced Ruffin by explaining that, had it not been for the unauthorized research on the cancerous cells of a Black Virginia woman, Henrietta Lacks, DNA technology may not have been available to free an innocent man.

Ruffin told a rapt audience at the senior center that he settled with the state for $1.3 million, but that money is long gone.

Ruffin is retired with a new wife, who is proud of her husband’s role in American history.

If you would like to reach out to Earl and Tyra Ruffin contact them via email at