Alberto Ramos, who will receive $5 million for a wrongful conviction - the largest such settlement in state history - said yesterday that no amount of money is worth going to prison with the tag of baby rapist.
That was a nightmare on a daily basis, Ramos, now 40, said of the seven years he spent in prison from 1985 to 1992. When you go to jail for a crime like this, you're treated like scum. I would have rather gone to jail for murdering someone then go to jail for the crime I was convicted of.
When he was 22, a college student and aspiring teacher working in the Concourse Day Care Center in the Bronx, Ramos was convicted of raping a 5-year-old girl.
The case started on Feb. 19, 1984, when a mother bathing her little girl saw redness around her daughter's vaginal area. The girl initially claimed a 5-year-old classmate sexually abused her. The mother reported her daughter's allegation.
The city's Human Resources Agency, which oversees day care programs, and the Bronx district attorney's office investigated. The first doctor to examine the girl ruled out sexual abuse.
An agency investigation found that the girl told other students about sexually explicit movies she watched at home, acted out intercourse using dolls and had a history of masturbating in class.
The Bronx assistant district attorney who prosecuted Ramos never called that doctor and ignored the agency's findings. The prosecutor also didn't turn over the agency materials to defense attorneys, as the law requires.
For unknown reasons, the agency report sent to the prosecutors also omitted the facts that the girl initially denied she was sexually abused and then later told agency investigators that her abuser was a dark-skinned black man. Ramos is a light-skinned Hispanic.
Without knowing about the agency's findings, another doctor examined the girl and later testified that she could have been sexually abused. Ramos' lawyer, Joel Rudin, said the doctor later testified that her determination was based in part on the fact that a 5-year-old would not have the knowledge to recreate sexual activity unless she had been sexually abused.
The agency closed out the investigation, concluding the allegations were unfounded.
In March 1984, the girl's mother came forward again, this time saying that her daughter was now saying it wasn't another classmate but a man named Alberto who had sexually abused her.
What happened next, Rudin said, is that Ramos got caught up in a nationwide hysteria about sexual abuse at day care centers.
Former Bronx District Attorney Mario Merola, who is deceased, tried to seize on that hysteria in looking to one day run for mayor, Rudin said.
Due to false information provided by the Bronx district attorney's office, Ramos was tried and convicted in the media before he was even indicted, Rudin said. The lawyer pointed out a newspaper story from the time that was headlined Teacher Hunted As Sex Abuser which quoted a district attorney's spokesman as saying Ramos was hiding from a police manhunt. It wasn't until years after he was released from prison that police officials admitted that they knew where Ramos was the whole time and that he was cooperative. The Bronx district attorney's office declined to comment on this story.
Imagine what it must have been like for Alberto Ramos to live in the Bronx in 1984 after that headline, Rudin said.
Ramos was convicted of rape in May 1985. Before handing down the maximum 8⅓ to 25 years, Judge Howard Goldfluss lamented that he wasn't able to sentence Ramos to life.
Ramos was first sent to Downstate Correctional Facility in Fishkill, where, he said, a guard ordered him to strip naked and in front of 30 inmates and announced that Ramos was a baby rapist. The guard then threatened to sodomize Ramos with a nightstick, he said.
From then on, things got much worse, Ramos said.
For the next seven years, Ramos left his cell as little as possible for fear of being attacked.
He said prison guards would unlock his cell door and look the other way while inmates set upon him.
I was verbally abused, I was sexually abused, I was harassed by prison officials, by other inmates, Ramos said. It was a situation where, eventually, I had to fight to live. I had to fight back.
Ramos' exoneration started with an ironic twist. In 1991, Anthony Judge, an investigator for an insurance company representing the city and the day care center in a civil lawsuit brought by the parents of the 5-year-old, uncovered the Human Resource Agency's documents. He gave those papers to Ramos' mother, who hired Joel Rudin.
The attorney filed an appeal, and Ramos was released from prison in June 1992 after a judge overturned the conviction.
It took 2½ more years for the Bronx district attorney's office to drop its appeal and dismiss the charges against him.
What happens in case after case after case is nobody wants to admit a mistake was made and the district attorney defends the conduct of his office virtually no matter what, said Rudin, who added that the prosecutor was never disciplined.
Joel Rudin spent the next nine years trying to sue the city for Ramos' wrongful conviction.
In August 2001, Rudin won the right to sue the Bronx district attorney's office, claiming that the prosecutor's misconduct resulted from a policy at the district attorney's office to tolerate or permit this kind of conduct to occur.
Instead of going to trial, the city settled, taking two years to finalize the terms.
After his release, Ramos worked for a time at a homeless shelter. With prison causing a seven-year gap on his resume, it was the only job he could get, he said. In 1997, in part to escape the neighborhood, Ramos joined the Army and served there until two weeks ago, when he was discharged.
His dreams of being a teacher are gone, he said. Now he wants to go back to school and maybe become a cook and take care of his mother, Flor Cupeles, who never lost faith in her son even when one of her Mott Haven neighbors told her that Ramos deserves to die for what he did.
Ramos said the settlement is an official acknowledgment of his innocence, though a begrudging one.
I know that New York City would not be paying me this settlement unless it recognized the horrible wrong that was done to me and that I am innocent, he said. But I remain deeply hurt and angry that no public official involved in this case - none of the prosecutors or social workers, no attorney for the city, no city official - has had the decency to apologize.