Inmate gets 8-year sentence on reduced charge

Almost 11 years after he was convicted of second-degree murder under a law that was later overturned, Nathaniel Ruffin is headed back to state prison for voluntary manslaughter.

He will serve at least 61/2 years of an eight-year sentence agreed to as part of a plea deal.

In 1995, Ruffin admittedly stole a pickup truck and ran from Fresno police. During the chase, the truck struck a sports car driven by Fresno accountant Juan Kong, 44, killing Kong instantly.

Ruffin was charged with second-degree murder under what was then a relatively new state law that allowed felony murder charges to be filed in connection with police chases. The law stated that a person could be found guilty of second-degree murder if his or her conduct amounted to willful and wanton disregard for the safety of others.

On those grounds, Ruffin, then 29, was convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life in state prison. He has served more than 12 years of that sentence since his arrest.

While in prison, Ruffin learned that the law used to convict him had been overturned, and he wrote his own appeal. His appeal was upheld and he was granted a new trial earlier this year.

The majority of the jury at that trial found in his favor, but the jurors could not reach a consensus, and the verdict was thrown out.

Rather than face a new trial, and at the advice of his attorneys, Ruffin agreed to accept the plea deal of eight years in prison. Under the terms of the deal, Ruffin waived credit for previous time served, as well as his right to appeal.

Attorney Michael Idiart, who represents Ruffin along with fellow attorney Ernest Kinney, said the deal is fair to both sides.

"It's a classic compromise," Idiart said. "We give up the time credits, and they gave up the murder charges. Unfortunately, the jury at that [most recent] trial wasn't given manslaughter as an option, or it would have probably ended there. We told the jury we thought our client was guilty of manslaughter, but that wasn't on the table."

Prosecutors said they were satisfied with the plea arrangement.

"We believe it was an appropriate disposition of the case," said Bob Ellis, Fresno County chief assistant district attorney. "Under the agreement, he will serve a total of more than 19 years. While it isn't what we were seeking, we feel it is appropriate."

Kinney, who said that Ruffin is a different man today than he was 12 years ago, said his client could have been released for time served if convicted of manslaughter. While Ruffin still faces nearly seven more years behind bars, Kinney said he is happy that for the first time he knows he will eventually be released.

"In our current climate, a sentence of 15 years to life actually means life behind bars," Kinney said. "Now, for the first time, he has a date that he will be released. When he goes back to his cell tonight, for the first time in 12 years, he will know that he's getting out eventually."