Free Bird?

New evidence may exonerate Luis Diaz, imprisoned for 26 years as the Bird Road Rapist

He was a quiet man, taciturn and difficult to read beyond what any language barriers would account for. He worked two jobs, washing dishes and mowing lawns; sometimes he drank, sometimes he fought with his wife. But mostly the Cuban immigrant struggled to support his family -- wife Caridad and three children -- and make his way as a Spanish-only speaker in Seventies Miami. A quarter-century ago, English was the language of currency on the street and in the courtroom.

In 1979 this man, Luis Diaz, was identified by a number of Dade County women as the brutal attacker who had kidnapped, raped, and beaten them, the man who had come to be known as the Bird Road Rapist over the course of some 30 assaults during the preceding two years. But it appears Diaz may have been as innocent as he maintained all along, a fact perhaps proven by the unearthing of some lost DNA evidence.

Diaz was scheduled to appear at a hearing Wednesday, August 3, after spending 26 years -- more than a third of his life -- in prison for crimes it now seems he did not commit.

Luis Diaz as he appears today
Luis Diaz as he appears today

The world outside has moved on since he left it in 1980 at age 41, sentenced to thirteen consecutive life sentences for attacks on eight women. Today Diaz is 67 and a grandfather. Caridad divorced him and remarried. Nonetheless she has always believed he was innocent, and with the Diaz children, friends, and several well-placed activists, the case never quite slipped into the past. Even some of the Bird Road rape victims eventually said, hesitantly at first and then stridently, that the wrong man was in jail. (It was New Times staff writer Steven Almond's exhaustively researched story "The Bird Road Rapist" [December 9, 1992] and a follow-up article that first publicized the case and the recantations.)

Ed Griffith, spokesman for the Miami-Dade County State Attorney's Office, confirmed this past Tuesday that a "post-conviction DNA motion" for Diaz would be argued Wednesday at the county courthouse.

The backstory leading to the hearing is a bit unclear, but the identities of the principal players are not in doubt. One of the saga's stars is the Innocence Project, the New York City-based group founded by attorney Barry Scheck that investigates and works to overturn wrongful criminal convictions. After receiving an imploring letter from José Diaz, Luis Diaz's eldest son, the project's attorneys took up the case at no charge, believing that DNA evidence, if it still existed, could prove Diaz's innocence.

The other major character -- and character is the word to best describe her -- is Virginia Snyder, a retired Delray Beach private investigator who has made a crusade of freeing Diaz.

Snyder, 84 years old, has been involved with the Diazes since the family initially hired Roy Black to defend Luis in 1979. She worked as an investigator for Black, and continued her inquiries after the Diazes could no longer afford to pay the lawyer.

Snyder's devotion to the case encompasses two decades' worth of activity. She pushed the victims' recanted identifications of Diaz and prompted former State Attorney Janet Reno and her successor, Katherine Fernandez Rundle, to review the case several times -- to no avail.

Meanwhile at Raiford State Penitentiary, where Diaz was incarcerated, an inmate approached him one day and said he felt for Diaz as a fellow Cuban and because he knew Diaz was innocent. Diaz related this story to Caridad, who in turn reported the conversation to Snyder, who passed a message back to Diaz: Try to get the man's name, she advised.

Snyder ended up visiting the inmate, Luis Nuñez, herself.

"He looked like a death's head," she recalls. "Shaved skull, cold eyes. He said he couldn't speak then, but he did know that Mr. Diaz was innocent."

Snyder kept in contact with Nuñez. "I don't want to say I courted him," she says, "but I did a couple of favors for him. I wrote to him. Visited. He would see me but never say more."

While Nuñez was in Palm Beach County for a court appearance, Snyder visited him and at last had a breakthrough.

"He finally just opened up," Snyder says. "He had run with a loosely formed gang whose members included the Bird Road Rapists. He said he'd never committed any rapes himself."

One of the alleged rapists worked at an auto upholstery shop in Miami. The gang used those various cars to drive to and from the crime scenes, accounting for one of the case's many anomalies -- the many different descriptions of the perpetrator's car.

Luis Nuñez died in prison in 1994. Before he did, though, Snyder recorded a statement about his purported knowledge of the rapes. It is unclear what, if any, impact Nuñez's jailhouse statement has had on Wednesday's planned hearing.

Attorneys from the Innocence Project battled a looming October 1 expiration of the statute governing the preservation of DNA evidence (a crisis since averted). This turned out to be vital to Diaz's case because, though it reportedly had been lost, misplaced, or simply not analyzed, there was still DNA evidence available from one of the Bird Road cases. Preserved through the years, this sample retained enough cellular integrity to point to a man who was not Luis Diaz as the attacker.

If exonerated Wednesday, Diaz will be the 161st person nationwide to be freed because of DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project's Colin Starger, who has been working on the Diaz case with Barry Scheck. Last week Scheck was in Miami conferring with the Diaz family and conducting delicate negotiations with the State Attorney's Office.

In a brief phone conversation this past Monday, Scheck expressed dismay that word of the Diaz hearing had reached the media. "I don't care what newspaper gets what story. The only thing I care about is that an innocent man has been in jail for 26 years and this is his last chance to walk out," Scheck said. "The papers have not been signed by [State Attorney] Kathy Rundle yet, and we are extremely nervous about the sensitivity of these proceedings."

It is Rundle's decision whether to grant Diaz a complete exoneration rather than a new trial, or indeed to allow the hearing to go forward at all. If every legal detail isn't just so, Diaz, as an immigrant, could find himself incarcerated again, this time at Krome Detention Center, in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.

Scheck did confirm that the new element in the Diaz case pertained to DNA evidence. The Diaz family declined comment and referred calls to Scheck, who would not elaborate further.

Though Snyder says Nuñez positively identified the real rapists in his jailhouse confession, it is unknown if authorities are seeking new suspects or testing the recovered sample in the hopes the DNA will match up with someone else in law-enforcement databases. The Bird Road rapes could, again, be unsolved crimes.

New Times fellow Emily Witt contributed to this report.

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