St. Petersburg Times

After 26 years, a free man
Luis Diaz maintained his innocence during all the years he sat behind bars, convicted of rape. Tests support his claims.

St. Petersburg Times By Tamara Lush

August 4, 2005

MIAMI - On Tuesday night Luis Diaz ate his last meal behind bars - a dry sandwich.  Twenty-four hours later, he sat at a Cuban restaurant and enjoyed the sweet taste of freedom - pot roast, plantains and rice - with his family at his side.

For 26 years, Diaz has been in prison on multiple rape charges. On Wednesday, he was released after DNA evidence from two of the rapes exonerated him as the attacker, casting doubt on all five of the cases for which he was serving time.

During a news conference, Diaz, now 67, told reporters what he has said from the beginning.

"I am innocent," he said, in Spanish. "For me, this is like a dream, to be next to my family."

In 1980, a jury, judge and several victims were convinced that Diaz was the so-called Bird Road Rapist, named after the location in the Miami area where the rapes occurred. The rapist used the same method with all of his victims:

He attacked young women driving in the Bird Road-U.S. 1 area of Coral Gables. He would signal the women to pull over by flashing his headlights, then force them to have sex at gunpoint.

He was convicted based on identifications made by eight victims, even though some of them initially described their attacker as being 6-feet tall, 200 pounds, and fluent in English.

Diaz is 5-foot-3, about 130 pounds and speaks little to no English. He also constantly smelled of onions because he worked as a fry cook - although none of the victims described their attacker having that odor.

Diaz was arrested after a victim who worked as a gas station attendant saw a motorist who looked like her attacker. She gave police the license plate number, which led them to Diaz.

Diaz, who came to the U.S. from Cuba in 1967, maintained his innocence for years.
His three children - ages 6, 8 and 14 at the time of his conviction - grew up without a father. His wife divorced him and married another man.

Yet his family believed in his innocence and pressed on. A private investigator who had worked for Diaz's lawyer refused to let the case go, and advocated on his behalf to anyone who would listen.

"It's one of those cases where you can't not keep going - if I hadn't, my conscience would have driven me nuts," said Virginia Snyder, the now-retired private investigator.

Now 86, Snyder has grown so close to Diaz and his family that she is something of a grandmother to Diaz's grown children.

Snyder contacted the TV program Unsolved Mysteries about the case. Eventually, nationally known lawyer Barry Scheck and the Innocence Project, his nonprofit group that tries to solve crimes using DNA evidence, got involved.

Diaz was originally convicted of seven of the rapes. In 1993, two victims recanted their identifications of Diaz, and those two convictions were vacated. But five other convictions remained.

In 2003, lawyers for the Innocence Project and the Holland & Knight law firm filed a motion for DNA testing in Diaz's case.

Diaz's DNA was compared with DNA samples from two victims; both tests excluded Diaz as the attacker and cast doubt on his culpability in the other cases.

At 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, Diaz sat in a courtroom on the sixth floor of the Miami-Dade County Courthouse. He wore a red prison jumpsuit and his chin sported day-old, salt-and pepper stubble. His wrists were closed in handcuffs, but that didn't stop him from raising his hands and flashing a victory sign to his family sitting in the audience.

At least 30 people were packed into the tiny room, including his former wife, Caridad Diaz. They had brought a new, tan guayabera and black pants for Diaz to wear out of the courtroom.

"He still can't believe he's being freed," said Jose Diaz, the family's oldest son.

Although prosecutors stopped short of declaring Diaz innocent in all the assaults, Chief Assistant State Attorney Don Horn told Circuit Judge Cristina Pereya-Shuminer that it wouldn't make sense to retry the cases after decades had passed.

"In baseball, when there's a tie, the runner gets the benefit of the doubt," said Horn. "At this point, we don't believe we have an absolute conviction of guilt - we are not pursuing any further charges against Mr. Diaz."

With that, Judge Pereya-Shuminer dismissed all of the cases against Diaz.

"You are free to go," she said. His family erupted with clapping, cheering and tears.

Even Barry Scheck - who was one of O.J. Simpson's lawyers - wiped tears off his cheeks.

A few hours later, Diaz sat at a desk at a downtown law firm - the 30-plus story skyscraper hadn't even been built when Diaz went to prison - and faced dozens of TV cameras.

He was wearing his new clothes and had shaved. He looked 10 years younger and smiled constantly.

In Spanish, he talked about his time in prison - when another inmate attacked him as he worked in the kitchen, how he missed watching his children, and grandchildren, grow up, and how he maintained his strong faith in God.

"I've been hoping for this day, that I could realize my dream of sitting next to my family," he said. "I have always been a believer. My God is inside my heart."

He said he harbors no hatred or bitterness against the women who misidentified him. He's not sure what the future will hold - whether he will sue the state for wrongful conviction - and all he wants to do is eat some Cuban food and spend time with his family.

They assured him that later Wednesday night, they would celebrate at a Cuban restaurant - the same one that he used to work at as a fry cook.  While holding the hand of his eldest son, Diaz was asked to describe his feelings in English.

He paused, thinking of the right words.

"I feel - free," he said.


Recent Cases
Eyewitness ID

Truth in Justice