- Associated Press - Monday, August 1, 2016

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) - Lawyers are seeking to hammer out a settlement in a lawsuit that claims three men were imprisoned for decades because they were forced to confess to a crime they did not commit.

Settlement negotiations took place Monday and were expected to continue Tuesday at the William M. Colmer Federal Courthouse in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

The negotiations involve attorneys for Hattiesburg and Forrest County, a half dozen insurance companies and the families of Larry Ruffin, Phillip Bivens and Bobby Ray Dixon, according to The Hattiesburg American (https://hatne.ws/2av5vAL ).

The three men were exonerated in a rape and capital murder case in Forrest County.

Bivens and Dixon pleaded guilty to their fabricated roles in the 1979 rape and murder of Eva Gail Patterson at her Eatonville home. A jury found Ruffin guilty.

Bivens and Dixon were beaten repeatedly and threatened with death before confessing to crimes they did not commit. And when their testimony didn’t add up, they were beaten again.

The two men confessed and agreed to testify against Ruffin, who also confessed, in exchange for life sentences. A jury found Ruffin guilty, and he too received a life sentence.

Over the years, the men proclaimed their innocence, until The Innocence Project took up their case and helped prove the men were not guilty of the crimes for which they spent 30 years in prison. DNA evidence collected at the scene of the crime did not match any of the men.

Bivens and Dixon were exonerated in 2010, when a grand jury failed to indict the two men and Circuit Court Judge Bob Helfrich set aside their convictions. Dixon died in 2010, soon after his release from prison. Bivens died in 2014.

Ruffin, who died in prison in 2002, was exonerated in 2011.

U.S. Magistrate Michael T. Parker and U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett are presiding over the case.

Attorney Bill Beck, who represents the families, said three of the six insurance companies were in favor of the settlement amounts under consideration, and he hoped he could come to terms with another two before getting to the final company.

Last year, the three men were awarded $50,000 each by the state for their wrongful imprisonment. The money was distributed to their estates.

The federal lawsuit is to settle claims of wrongdoing by Hattiesburg, the Hattiesburg Police Department, Forrest County and officers with both Hattiesburg Police Department and Forrest County Sheriff’s Department.

In the death of Patterson, DNA matched Andrew Harris, who is serving a life sentence for a 1981 rape in the Hattiesburg area.

Harris pleaded not guilty in 2011, but was indicted by a grand jury and was to go on trial in 2012. But the case was passed to the inactive files and Harris will not stand trial unless his release from prison becomes imminent.

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Information from: The Hattiesburg American, https://www.hattiesburgamerican.com

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