Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Steven Ruffin

Other Exonerations from Kings County, New York
Just after 9 p.m. on February 5, 1996, 16-year-old James Deligny was shot to death in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Officers from the New York Police Department’s 79th Precinct, led by Detective Ivan Rivera, investigated the shooting and quickly began interviewing witnesses.

Two women, Mary Griffin and Joanne McPhatter, said in statements that they had been walking up Kingston Avenue and saw a young man and woman up ahead of them. Five “boys” ran up to the couple. There was a short argument, and then one of the young men pulled out a gun and shot Deligny in the head, the women said.

Cletus Barber, who was 14 years old, told police that he was nearby, waiting for the bus, when six young men approached from the south. Three of them kept walking; Barber told the police he thought they were serving as lookouts. The other three approached the couple, who were standing in front of a building on Kingston Avenue. According to Barber, two of the young men said, “That’s not him.” Deligny put his hands in his pocket, Barber said, and one of the young men pulled out a gun and shot him three times in the head.

Barber said that he glimpsed the shooter’s face when his mask slipped down and that the shooter was a “bad boy” who hung out at the nearby fast food restaurants. Barber said he saw the shooter most days as he came home from school and that he recognized the shooter’s voice. Barber said the shooter and one of the boys who had approached Deligny had on black leather jackets. He also said the shooter wore a black hoodie, was 5’6”, and 16 to 17 years old.

At 10 p.m. on February 5, Detective Steven Chmil interviewed Cindy Clayton, Deligny’s sister, who was the woman with him at the time of the shooting. In her initial statement, Clayton said that they were on their way to a Chinese restaurant when six young men approached. Three appeared to be acting as lookouts.

The other three came up to her and Deligny. The shooter grabbed Deligny by his coat. Clayton said she knocked his arm away. One of the three men kept saying, “That’s not him.” Deligny tried to scare the young men, Clayton said, reaching into his pocket as if he had a gun. Then the shooter pulled out a gun and fired three times, hitting Deligny twice, according to Clayton.

Clayton described the shooter as 16 or 17 years old, 5’ 4”, with a slim build and short hair, wearing dark clothing and a hoodie.

Three hours later, Clayton gave a second statement, which was recorded. In this statement, there were five young men, not six, and three of them stopped her and Deligny in front of the building on Kingston Avenue. She was able to see the shooter clearly because of the building’s lights. The shooter asked one of the other men, who was wearing red, “Is that him?” The man in red answered, “G, it’s not him.” Clayton said she didn’t know what G meant, whether it was an initial, a nickname, the word, “Gee,” or just a street idiom.

On February 9, the police received two anonymous tips that 17-year-old Steven Ruffin was the shooter. The second caller said that Ruffin had mistakenly believed that Deligny had taken a pair of earrings from Ruffin’s sister. Two days later, Detective Louis Scarcella talked to a woman named “Mary,” who said that she had been at a party the night before with Ruffin, and he talked about shooting Deligny. She said that Ruffin had a gun in his waistband and kept lifting his shirt to show it off. The police told “Mary” to notify them if she saw Ruffin. She called on February 12 at about 6 p.m. and said that Ruffin had left his house on Revere Place, wearing a black coat with a fur-lined hood.

At the time, Clayton was already with two detectives near Ruffin’s house. Clayton looked at Ruffin a short while later as he left a grocery store and said she thought he was the shooter but wasn’t sure because she did not get a good look at his face. The police arrested Ruffin at 6:45 p.m. in front of his house and took him to the 79th Precinct. At the time of the arrest, Ruffin told the officers that his father, also named Steven Ruffin, was a police officer assigned to that precinct.

Ruffin was placed in a lineup, where Clayton identified him as the shooter. Before the viewing, Clayton said that she believed the shooter had a chipped or cracked front tooth. After Clayton’s initial identification, the police had each lineup participant show his teeth, and Clayton said it was “definitely him.”

Scarcella, joined by Rivera, advised Ruffin of his Miranda rights. In a handwritten statement made at 11:20 p.m., Ruffin said: “I was there. I did not have a gun or shoot anybody. My sister Diane got robbed, we went down to Herkimer and Kingston. Someone took my [sister’s earrings]. I saw the boy shoot the guy—my sister was with me. We were right there on the street.”

Scarcella then called Diane Ruffin. According to his notes of the interview, Diane confirmed the part about the earrings but said she wasn’t with her brother on Kingston at the time of the shooting.

Scarcella returned to the interview room and told Ruffin he was lying. In a second statement, Ruffin said that after his sister’s jewelry was snatched, he had chased after the robber but lost him. Then he, his sister, and his mother went out looking for the young man, based on his sister’s description.

“When we crossed Herkimer, there were three boys in front of this guy, his name is Jimmy," Ruffin said in the statement. "I went to school with him. One guy ran up on him from in the street. Now we see the shots. After the shots we ran back home. Before we ran, I think they saw my face. I know one or two of the guys saw my face. Some people at their windows could have [seen] my face but I don’t know if there was anybody in the windows. [Deligny’s] sister was there. She might have glanced at me and saw my face.”

Around midnight, Ruffin’s father arrived at the precinct. He and Ruffin’s mother were divorced, and father and son had not lived together for many years. In a third statement, Ruffin said he didn’t know where the gun was, but he could get it through his sister’s boyfriend, known in court documents as “Glover.” One of the Ruffins called Glover, who said a friend of his had the weapon, but he would get it back.

Ruffin then wrote out a statement: “I shot him 4 times. I shot him because I thought he was the guy who robbed my sister. I was not planning to shoot the boy Jimmy. I was trying to wait for my sister to come back and I.D. him. While I was waiting for my sister, [Deligny] got funny. He put his hands in his pockets and flung his coat open. Now I shot him 4 times. After I shot him I ran home. I gave the gun to [Glover].”

Glover turned the gun over to Scarcella a short while later. It had been broken apart and stuck into two potatoes. Scarcella cleaned and reassembled the weapon, then showed it to Ruffin. According to a police report, Ruffin said he had used it to shoot Deligny.

At 4:26 a.m. on February 13, Ruffin gave a videotaped statement. He said that when he and his friends were out looking for the person who stole his sister’s earrings, they ran into Deligny, who fit the description provided by Diane. Ruffin said he detained Deligny and said, “Hold on, I want to make sure you[’re] the person who robbed my sister.” Deligny didn’t respond, Ruffin said, then appeared to reach for something inside his jacket. Ruffin said he then began shooting. Ruffin was charged with second-degree murder and two counts of weapon possession.

Prior to trial, a hearing was held in Kings County Supreme Court, where Ruffin’s attorney argued that the police had lacked probable cause for an arrest, that Clayton’s identification was flawed, and that Ruffin’s statements should be suppressed.

At the hearing, the police, including Ruffin’s father, testified about the events leading up to Ruffin’s arrest and the statements Ruffin made after he was in custody. “Mary,” the woman who was said to have told police that she saw Ruffin brag about the killing, did not testify; the investigating officers testified about what they said she told them. Clayton testified that prior to her initial, tentative identification of Ruffin outside the store, a detective had pointed to two men, one of whom was Ruffin, coming out of a building and said that one of the men was a suspect.

Ruffin’s father testified that he didn’t know the officers involved in the investigation. He said he never threatened his son, nor did he advise him to get an attorney. He said he told him to tell the truth.

On November 4, 1996, a judge ruled that the state had established sufficient probable cause to arrest Ruffin. But the judge suppressed Clayton’s identification from the store and the later lineup because the police had told her that Ruffin was one of the two men she saw leaving the building. The ruling also allowed the state to use Ruffin’s statements. The judge said that Ruffin had been advised of his rights and that although his father was acting more like a police officer than a parent, he didn’t threaten Ruffin or make any promises to his son.

The trial, with Justice James Starkey presiding, began a week later. No physical or forensic evidence connected Ruffin to the murder. The gun retrieved by the police was never tested for fingerprints. A medical examiner testified that Deligny had been shot at close range, in the arm, neck and head. The state’s case relied on Clayton, who identified Ruffin in court as the shooter, and the testimony of the detectives who investigated the case and obtained Ruffin’s statements.

Ruffin’s father testified that he went to the precinct as a parent, not a police officer, and that he told his son that “the healing process will start if you tell the truth.” He said that his son recanted his confessions in the early morning of February 13, 1996, but that he never told his fellow officers or a prosecutor about this happening.

In the time after Ruffin’s arrest, his family and attorney had assembled significant evidence that Glover was the shooter. Ruffin’s mother, Diane Chavis, had told her son’s attorney that Glover had confessed to her and agreed to turn himself in. Glover ended up talking to an attorney assigned to him through the Legal Aid Society.

In addition, Glover had called Ruffin’s attorney on August 21, 1996. In the call, which the attorney recorded, Glover said he saw Deligny reach for an apparent weapon before he was shot. Glover also said that he didn’t see the shooting or the shooter and that he didn’t know who owned the gun he gave the detectives.

One of Ruffin’s friends, Derrick Jones, and Ruffin’s cousin, Willie Alexander, testified that they had been part of the group of young men who stopped Deligny and Clayton on the street after Diane Ruffin was robbed. They each said that Glover had shot Deligny. They also said that Ruffin and his sister, who was pregnant with Glover’s child, were a block away at the time.

Diane Ruffin testified that she and her brother were stragglers when Glover and the others, including Jones and Alexander, canvassed the neighborhood in search of the robber. She heard the shots up ahead but did not see who fired the gun. She said she told her father at the precinct on the night of Ruffin’s arrest that her brother was not the shooter.

Ruffin’s attorney told Judge Starkey that he wanted to put Glover on the witness stand. Glover’s attorney told the court that Glover would assert his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination if he was asked about the gun or the shooting. The prosecutor said that based on Glover’s recorded statement to Ruffin’s attorney, Glover was actually an alibi witness, not an alternate suspect, and that if he took the Fifth it would lead the jury to needless speculation. Judge Starkey said that Ruffin’s attorney could not question Glover just to get him to plead the Fifth.

Outside the presence of the jury, Glover said he would not answer any questions about where he was on the night of the shooting. Asked if he had a cracked tooth, Glover said he had been advised to plead the Fifth Amendment.

Before the jury, Glover testified about his relationship with Ruffin and Ruffin’s sister. He also said that he ran into Ruffin’s father at the precinct on the night Ruffin was arrested. Glover said that Ruffin’s father told him he wanted to hurry up and make his son confess so he could go home.

Ruffin testified and said he didn’t shoot Deligny, and that he was with his sister, behind the others, when the shots were fired. He said that after his arrest, when he was first interviewed by the police, he asked whether he needed an attorney. A detective told him no.

Ruffin said he gave two truthful statements denying his involvement in the shooting. The detectives became annoyed, and they returned a few minutes later with Ruffin’s father, who told him that he was looking at 35-50 years in prison if he didn’t confess. Ruffin said his father told him that if he confessed, they would work out a deal where he would serve just a few years in prison.

Ruffin said he confessed to help his sister and the child she was then expecting with Glover. He worried that she would be implicated in the crime or that if Glover was arrested, his child would grow up without a father. Ruffin said he knew details of the shooting from Alexander.

The jury also heard Ruffin’s videotaped statement and they saw him display his mouth, which showed a cracked front tooth. Scarcella testified that Ruffin confessed after his father arrived, quoted the Bible to his son, and pleaded with him to tell the truth. (Ruffin’s father had testified that there was no Bible-quoting, and he denied telling Glover that he wanted his son to confess quickly so he could go home.)

The jury convicted Ruffin of first-degree manslaughter and a weapons charge on December 11, 1996. He was sentenced to 12 years and six months to 25 years on the manslaughter conviction, and seven years and six months to 15 years on the weapons conviction, with the sentences to run consecutively.

Ruffin appealed, arguing there was insufficient evidence to support a conviction. The Supreme Court of New York’s Appellate Division, Second Department, affirmed the conviction in 1999 but modified Ruffin’s sentences to run concurrently.

Ruffin was released on parole on June 24, 2010. At his parole hearing, he confessed to the shooting. He would later say he falsely confessed to the parole board, because he desperately wanted to be out of prison.

In 2021, Ruffin, now represented by the Legal Aid Society, asked the Conviction Review Unit (CRU) of the Kings County District Attorney’s Office in 2021 to review his case. The CRU interviewed nearly all the witnesses and participants and reviewed the prosecution and defense files.

On January 18, 2024, the district attorney’s office moved to vacate Ruffin’s conviction and dismiss his charges. The CRU report accompanying the motion said that errors by Ruffin’s attorney and tunnel vision by the police and prosecutor undermined the integrity of the conviction.

According to the report, Ruffin’s sister, stepfather and his grandmother said in interviews or affidavits that Glover had confessed to shooting Deligny. This was consistent with previous statements by Ruffin’s mother. They believed Glover was going to turn himself in, but that never happened.

The CRU interviewed Glover with his attorney present and noticed he had a cracked front tooth. Glover denied being involved in the shooting or having ever confessed his involvement in the shooting. He also denied giving the gun to the detectives. He said he was not aware the defense considered him an alternate suspect when he testified at Ruffin’s trial.

Ruffin’s interview with the CRU was largely consistent with his trial testimony. He said he confessed to avoid a lengthy prison sentence and to protect his sister. He said he expected Glover to come forward. Although Ruffin said his father didn’t make him confess, he said he believed his father’s statement that everything would work out if he did. He also said that his father and the detectives threatened Ruffin’s sister with arrest if he did not confess.

In its analysis, the CRU said Ruffin’s trial attorney had made several errors. He failed to present evidence that Glover had confessed to Ruffin’s mother and offered to turn himself in. The attorney also failed to find a workaround after Glover said he wouldn’t answer questions about his teeth. The CRU said the attorney could have simply asked Glover to display his teeth. “It is well-established that displaying physical characteristics is non-testimonial and not subject to Fifth Amendment protection,” the report said.

In addition, the attorney didn’t adequately cross-examine the police about their lack of investigation into Glover. Clayton never viewed him in a lineup, and the police never treated him as a suspect.

“It is troubling that when Glover surrendered the murder weapon to Scarcella, he did not ask Glover how he came to possess it,” the report said. “Scarcella testified that he did not question Glover, or arrest him, because the gun was not loaded. Without so much as an interview, Scarcella was convinced there was no evidence that Glover was involved in the shooting.”

Misconduct by Scarcella was a factor in 17 exonerations in Brooklyn, but the CRU said in the report, “While Scarcella has in some cases been accused of wrongdoing, CRU did not discover any misconduct by Scarcella in this case.”

The report said that Ruffin’s confessional statements contained substantial problems and didn’t withstand close scrutiny. Ruffin said the gun was a “30 snub nose,” when it was a .38-caliber weapon. His statement said he told Deligny to wait there because he wanted to be sure he was the person who robbed Diane. Clayton testified the shooter didn’t say that. Ruffin also said that he drew his weapon from his left side. Clayton told police the shooter pulled the gun from his right pocket.

“Whether the statement came about because defendant was coerced into making a false confession or whether he made a calculated decision that it was in his best interest to provide facts based upon his observations, or make them up, the result was the same,” the report said. It also noted the role that Ruffin’s father played in the events that transpired. “He too firmly believed in his estranged son’s guilt,” the report said. “He readily accepted the detectives’ belief that defendant was guilty. He did not disclose to the detectives or the prosecution that defendant recanted. He ignored that Glover confessed, rationalizing that Glover did so to protect defendant.”

The CRU attempted to speak with Barber, who had given a detailed description of the shooting and said he knew the shooter by sight. He declined to be interviewed. The report noted that once Clayton made her identification, there was no documentation that police asked Barber to view a lineup.

On the day the CRU released its report, Justice Matthew D’Emic of Kings County Supreme Court granted the state’s motions to vacate Ruffin’s convictions and dismiss his charges.

“If you know you’re innocent, don’t give up on your case—keep on fighting, because justice will prevail,” Ruffin said after the rulings. “That’s all I’ve wanted for 30 years: somebody to listen and really hear what I’m saying and look into the things I was telling them.”

– Ken Otterbourg

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date: 2/20/2024
Last Updated: 2/20/2024
State:New York
Most Serious Crime:Manslaughter
Additional Convictions:Weapon Possession or Sale
Reported Crime Date:1996
Sentence:20 to 40 years
Age at the date of reported crime:17
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No