San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin announced Monday the exoneration of Joaquin Ciria, convicted of murder in San Francisco Superior Court in 1991. Ciria spent 32 years in prison for a crime, Boudin says, that Ciria did not commit.
The exoneration is the first initiated by the Innocence Commission, a five-member advisory body appointed by Boudin in September 2020 during his first year in office. The commission is chaired by University of San Francisco law professor Lara Bazelon.
The announcement follows what Bazelon described as months of work by the commission “poring over thousands of pages of documents, re-interviewing witnesses and hearing from experts.”
The commission concluded that Ciria was falsely accused and convicted on the basis of testimony of a 17-year-old friend who had been under heavy police pressure to blame Ciria.
“We unanimously agreed after extensive deliberation that the truth was clear that Joaquin Ciria was arrested and convicted for a crime he did not commit.”
Bazelon said offered an apology to Ciria, now 61, for what she called “the worst kind of injustice: the incarceration of an innocent person.”
The story began with the 1990 murder of Felix Bastarrica, a friend of Ciria. According to an extensive statement released Monday by the district attorney’s office, the city police “zeroed in on Mr. Ciria as the shooter” based on street rumors, even though there was no physical evidence that tied him to the crime.
“There was no DNA. … There were no fingerprints. No murder weapon was ever recovered. Certainly, Mr. Ciria never confessed. He maintained his innocence.”
At trial, three eyewitnesses identified Ciria as the shooter.
Two of the witnesses offered testimony that Bazelon said would not have been allowed in court today. Their view of Ciria was “compromised by distance and poor lighting” and their identifications were “cross-racial,” which Bazelon said “are perhaps the most unreliable kind of identifications.”
The third eyewitness – George Varela – was the most important. Varela, 17 at the time, was the supposed getaway driver.
According to Bazelon, Varela was a “troubled youth” who had been “in and out of trouble as a juvenile.”
He was brought into the police station and told he would have serious problems if he did not identify Ciria as the shooter. Bazelon said:
“After an extremely coercive interrogation, he basically broke down and said, ‘whatever you say.'”
Another fact that troubled the commission was that there were two alibi witnesses who were not called to testify at trial. The commission also learned that there was another eyewitness to the shooting who said it had been done by another man, not Ciria.
Based on its research and reevaluation of the case, the commission concluded that Ciria was innocent and recommended that he be exonerated. The district attorney agreed, as did the Superior Court of San Francisco where Ciria had a pending habeas corpus petition.
The case was brought to the attention of the commission by the Northern California Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization located at Santa Clara University School of Law. The project is one of a number of similar projects around the country that promote criminal justice reform by, among other things, identifying and challenging wrongful convictions.
Attorneys working with the project served as Ciria’s advocates in the process. After their investigation and determination that he had a meritorious case they filed a habeas corpus petition in the San Francisco court. They also contacted the commission.
Linda Starr, the executive director of the project, said that Ciria will be eligible for compensation by the state of California for the time spent in jail.
While, in her opinion, there is no amount of money that could compensate for Ciria’s lost 32 years, she believes he will be entitled to $140 a day for the time he spent in jail. If he is determined to be eligible, that would work out to roughly $1.6 million.
At a news conference Monday, Boudin was asked if action would be taken against the police officers involved. Boudin said that if there was evidence that the police had intentionally falsified evidence or framed Ciria, the district attorneys’ office would consider doing so, although the statute of limitation would be a problem.
However, Boudin said:
“Based on my review of the case, we don’t see evidence that that happened. We’re not suggesting that he was intentionally framed. We’re simply correcting his erroneous and wrongful conviction.”
The district attorney noted that “we understand the tremendous pressure that police, that members of the District Attorney’s Office, are under to move cases forward, to solve cases and to secure convictions.”
“Sometimes that pressure,” Boudin said, leads “police or assistant district attorneys to cut corners.”
Boudin, a former public defender, ran for election on a platform of reforming the criminal justice system. He has been a controversial figure as district attorney and is currently subject to a recall election to be held June 7, 2022.
The recall is based on allegations that Boudin’s approach has led to increased crime rates in the city, according to BallotPedia, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization with the mission of serving as “The Encyclopedia of American Politics.”
Retired Santa Clara Superior Court Judge and commission member, LaDoris Cordell, said the commission was independent from the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office. She said that she had never met Boudin before Monday’s announcement.
In her view, with the exoneration:
“San Francisco has taken a step closer to going from a criminal legal system to a criminal justice system.”
Bazelon said that the members of the commission work without pay and do the work as a public service.
“We come together with open minds and a shared goal. That goal is to get to the truth, whatever that truth is.”
“The exoneration of the innocent is perhaps one of the most important, if not the most important thing a prosecutor can do.”