MIAMI — When the Bird Road Rapist worked this stretch of roadway a quarter-century ago, Miami was a lot like a sleepy Southern resort city. Police didn't publicize rape investigations. Violent drug crimes were yet to make headlines. "It was an innocent time," recalled Edna Buchanan, the city's most famous crime reporter.
After 25 rapes between 1977 and 1979, the authorities focused on Luis Diaz, a Cuban-born fry cook.
For three years, a man had been attacking women on Bird Road about five miles southwest of Miami, in and around Coral Gables, a well-to-do suburb. The man would approach female drivers, flash his headlights and attack them when they pulled over. One victim gave police a license plate number that led them to Diaz.
This week, Diaz, who in 1980 was convicted of seven rapes and sentenced to life in prison, walked free.
Two of his convictions had been thrown out in 1993 after victims recanted their identification of Diaz. Lawyers later asked for DNA testing in the remaining cases, and Wednesday, Circuit Judge Cristina Pereyra-Shuminer vacated the remainder of the convictions because DNA evidence showed Diaz could not have been the assailant in two cases.
In court, the 67-year-old bespectacled father of three wept and crossed himself. "Victory," he said.
Ed Griffith, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade state attorney's office, said Thursday that it was fruitless to second-guess the processes that had put Diaz behind bars since his arrest in 1979.
"Eyewitnesses at the time gave strong testimony," Griffith said. "The jury convicted based on evidence." The state's position, he said, was that Diaz had only been totally exonerated in the rapes for which DNA samples existed. The office elected not to retry the other cases.
"We felt this was the right thing to do," Griffith said.
Defense lawyer Barry Scheck, whose New York-based Innocence Project helped free Diaz, called the former cook's release from prison a watershed because his convictions had relied heavily on eyewitness identifications. "This case had eight mistaken eyewitnesses. The previous high was five," Scheck said.
The organization co-founded by Scheck, a member of O.J. Simpson's defense team, says it has helped free more than 160 wrongfully convicted people through the use of DNA testing. Scheck predicted that as a result of the Diaz case, U.S. law enforcement agencies would reconsider how they handle lineups, photo arrays and other ways eyewitnesses identify a suspect.
"There are a million ways where, unintentionally or not so unintentionally, you indicate to people who you want them to identify," Scheck said. One witness in the Bird Road Rapist case, known by the initials L.C., said she knew the officers wanted her to select Diaz, Scheck said. Two of the victims later recanted their testimony against Diaz.
For Buchanan, who broke the story in the Miami Herald in 1979 that police were hunting for a man suspected of multiple rapes in the Bird Road-U.S. Highway 1 area, the case was a reminder of how much had changed in Miami-Dade County and in law enforcement.
"At the time, their policy was never to tell about rape cases," she said. "Whenever I'd confront them, their excuse was, 'If we tell the public, the rapist will know we're after him.' "
In contrast, Buchanan said, when police were hunting a man in January 2003 suspected of raping three schoolgirls and four women in southwest Miami, they put posters on billboards featuring sketches of the suspect.
The way the Bird Road Rapist operated was also testimony to a more trusting time, Buchanan said.
"The average person would pull over, thinking there was something wrong with their car, or that it was a person they knew," said Buchanan, speaking from Tampa, where the Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter was promoting a novel. Once the women stopped, the rapist would attack them at gunpoint.
The investigation into the rapes was chiefly handled by what today is the Miami-Dade Police Department, a force that Buchanan recalled had a single Spanish-speaking homicide detective at the time.
"Maybe if they'd been able to question this guy better, they would have found an alibi for at least one of the rapes that checked out," Buchanan said. Diaz speaks limited English.
Griffith, of the Miami state attorney's office, said, "It's not easy to come to a conclusion on what happened 25 years ago in light of today." He said State Atty. Katherine Fernandez Rundle thought it was proper to free Diaz.
"As she says, there is no time limit to justice," Griffith said.
Former Miami Police Chief Kenneth Harms said the force he headed from 1978 to 1984 had to play catch-up in recruiting and retaining minority officers, especially Latinos, and was originally much too small to handle the challenges thrown at it. During those years, South Florida experienced a leap in brutal drug-related crimes. And in 1980, Miami was rocked by a race riot and a massive influx of Cubans in the Mariel boatlift.
"We were understaffed," Harms said. When the time came to investigate warring clans of cocaine dealers, for example, "we didn't have seasoned investigators who could go undercover for two to three years," he said.
Virginia Snyder, 84, a retired private investigator who worked for Diaz's defense, said she concluded the rapes had been committed by drug dealers who were paying protection money to police. Diaz, she said, was framed to protect them.
"It wasn't him at all," she said.
Lawyers for Diaz said he might seek compensation through the courts or the Florida Legislature.
Harms said it might never be possible to know who the Bird Road Rapist was.
"Who knows at this point? Possibly only him," Harms said. "I know from time to time the wrong person is put in jail. That's simply the way the system functions."