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Innocence Project In San Diego Helps In Freeing Wrongfully Convicted Man

Luis Vargas, who has been in prison for 16 years, reacts in court as he is exonerated, Nov. 23, 2015, in Los Angeles.
Associated Press
Luis Vargas, who has been in prison for 16 years, reacts in court as he is exonerated, Nov. 23, 2015, in Los Angeles.

Innocence Project In San Diego Helps In Freeing Wrongfully Convicted Man
Guest:Justin Brooks, director, California Innocence Project

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It is Wednesday, November 25. We're taking calls now for chef Bernard holiday cooking, entertaining and dining. That number is 888. That number is 888895. That number is 888-895-5727. Or if you would like Tweet your question at KPBS Midday. First our top story on Midday Edition, the California innocence project is getting an other wrongfully convicted prisoner something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. Luis Vargas who served 16 years have since reversed on Monday after DNA press -- testing proved he did not commit the crimes. Joining is Justin Brooks cofounder of 11 and California Western School of Law. Justin, program. Thank you, Lori. -- Maureen. Why was the DNA not tested before? This is one of those classic misidentification cases. He was a -- identified by three sector victims -- separate victims that he bring them. Implications are not reliable, in DNA testing should be relied upon. It would seem to me in cases of sexual assault DNA testing be routinely done. I imagine many people might think this is routinely done but it isn't? It is now. But DNA to testing to started in the 90s in California. We have better equipment, better tests we can do. The advent of mitochondrial DNA testing, here without a root, is a recent development. That is why we always have to go back and look at all cases where DNA testing is not done or results were inconclusive to see if we can do better today. Who did the DNA testing? One testing has been done now, it has been done with serial rapists known as the teardrop rapist in Los Angeles. This guy has been responsible for 35 rates. Those rates occurred before, during, and after our client was sent to Chris. It is the exact same MO. Is Hispanic women who are raped within a one half area mile of Los Angeles. They have to teardrop tattoo. We were able to prove that the sky, who still a large, was responsible for the rates. And Luis Vargas has a teardrop tattoo like that and that was the basis of the identification? Yes. When he was a 13-year-old homeless kid, he got a teardrop tattoo. There are a lot of kids who got teardrop tattoos In the 90s. It is not that uncommon. That is the type of thing that when a scared victim takes a look at a picture to do and ID and see the tattoo is the same and general description, people get miss identified. This person who is identified only as a teardrop rapist, he is still a large, is that correct? He is still a large. It is pretty amazing. It has been happening for decades. The always the same, the areas the same, the victims are similar. There have been dozens of rates and victims. Unfortunately, the Dist. Atty.'s office unable to the case now, it was clear to them that this was the teardrop rapist the guide were looking for and not our client. No they reversed Luis Vargas conviction is now free of jail? No. Because now we're dealing with immigration -- issues because he was not a citizen when he was convicted. That is a federal matter. Now we're trying to clear him with immigration and get home. I wanted to take attorneys at the California innocence project to get the court to agree to do this DNA testing? We have been working on the case for a few years. Under California law, we have to go find the evidence make sure it's testable, and we have to put together a motion for and have an argument that the DNA can prove the innocence. Then we have to get the testing, get the results back, and then the problem is that is when the litigation usually starts. Fortunately we went through all the steps and presented it to the Dist. Atty.'s office in Los Angeles and he conceded that he is innocent. That is exactly how these cases should be resolved. We are very lucky San Diego has done that on several cases. That has not been true throughout the state of California. Los Angeles they don't have conviction integrity unit. They didn't force us to litigate this case it keep our client prison for several more years. This new integrity unit up in LA, to take that as a sign that maybe prosecutors are getting are willing to reopen some questionable cases to take a look at these conviction in the light of new scientific evidence? Yes. Items -- I am a little cynical before they do it. Sometimes it can be more of a PR thing that our reality. In San Diego it is a reality. Our Dist. Atty. does review these cases. Now with this case that Los Angeles is also series about doing the same thing. This is a great advance for California. I want to talk to you about a couple things suffered from the Luis Vargas case. We spoke earlier this year about a petition you found the UN on behalf of Marilyn Bolero. There's a client you have been fighting for for 20 years. Have with that petition? Back I'm still waiting to hear from the United Nations. I'm hoping to get a decision. There's a Christmas wish I had. I'm also hoping to hear from Governor Jerry Brown. Waiting to hear from them on her clemency physician. After walking 700 miles to Sacramento, it is very difficult part of this job how much waiting there is. The clemency was for the California 2012. And you remind us about that petition and that walk that you made from San Diego to Sacramento? Sure. The governor of California has the power to grant clemency when the system fails. And we identified a few years ago 12 of our clients who are actually interested and many of them we ran out of options with the courts. To get the governor's attention, we walked myself into lawyers from my office 712 miles with clemency petition. Since then we have been able to get out to those clients went through control and another exonerated after 36 years. The other 10 are actually innocence and we are hoping the governing will activities. -- Governor will act on these. You can go to innocence or go to our website -- innocence Luis Vargas is one of many cases where there is a compelling case of innocence. It is not something that happens every day. We've been around for 16 years. We really make an effort to find those good cases. That is the message we are always taking to prosecutors and to the governor's we look for the needle in the haystack. When we find it, we have the evidence. Luis Vargas exonerated of multiple rate spent 16 years in prison for the crimes he did not commit, not proven by DNA. You have experience with what that transition back into society will mean for him. When he is taken out of that immigration holds he is now, but will he face as a free man? It is very tough. We got my camera not prison last year after 36 years, I said it will take you to any restaurant you want to go. He said I've seen Carl Junior answered years. I would like one of those burgers. So we to come to Carl's Jr. So we to come to Carl's Jr. Just watching and look at the menu and struggle with making choices after not making choices for 36 years and having my phone about the table and not understand how a the Internet on my phone, it is a beautiful thing. They are sort of reborn. Everything is exciting and new. It is very stressful. That figure out how to get a job get back to having a life. Most of them come out without a drivers license. They don't have a Social Security card. They are not in the system. Something these in the -- a great deal of challenges. There on the news, everyone is interested in the, and the interest is a way. And they are struggling to get their lives back together. I would imagine that this is a moment is a great feeling for you and the rest of the lawyers at the California innocence project. Is in a mixed feeling in any way? Back know -- No, this is what it is all about press. Sometimes later on when they are dealing with real struggles it is hard. But we know because we are in the prisons every day that however hard it is, it is better than prison. I have been speaking with Justin Brooks he is cofounder of trade 11 at the California Western School of Law. Happy Thanksgiving, Justin. Thank you for doing this. You to Maureen, thank you.

Even after Luis Vargas was sent to prison for a rape conviction that would mean he would probably never be free, his young daughter never stopped believing in him.

After 16 years, Crystal Nunez-Vargas finally heard the words she had been waiting for Monday when a judge ordered her father released after DNA evidence linked the crimes to a serial rapist on the FBI's most wanted list.

Her father, wearing a blue jail uniform and handcuffed only minutes earlier, broke down, put his hand to his forehead and covered his eyes as Superior Court Judge William Ryan ruled that new evidence "unerringly" pointed to Vargas' innocence and tossed out the convictions.

"I've believed in my father's innocence the day he told me he was innocent," Nunez-Vargas said after the brief hearing, becoming emotional and dabbing her eyes as she spoke with reporters.

Vargas, 46, who was taken back into custody because of immigration issues, told his lawyers to tell his family not to worry and that he would be home soon.

"I think he's let go of any bitterness and he's just happy to move forward and be reunited with this family, hopefully for Christmas," said attorney Raquel Cohen of the California Innocence Project.

His lawyers expect he'll be released by immigration authorities because he was a legal resident at the time of arrest and the matter of the conviction is now vacated.

Vargas was serving a term of 55 years to life in prison when he contacted the innocence project at California Western School of Law based in San Diego in 2012 and said he thought he was wrongly convicted of crimes that were the work of the so-called Teardrop Rapist.

The notorious predator known for a tattoo of a teardrop under his eye has been linked by DNA to 11 crimes and is suspected of 35 across the Los Angeles area, the innocence project said.

Vargas has a similar tattoo and he was accused of crimes that fit the same pattern — attacks on girls and women walking to school her work in the early morning.

Vargas was convicted of kidnapping, forcibly raping and sodomizing one woman and attempting to rape two others between February and June 1998.

DNA testing methods were not as sensitive at the time of the trial and the convictions hinged on positive identifications by the three victims.

Prosecutors said the three assaults were so similar, they were "signature crimes" that could only be committed by the same person. The women all corroborated each other by pointing to Vargas, who had a previous rape conviction.

The judge noted that their initial identifications, however, were tentative and inconsistent in describing their assailant.

"This was a shaky witness identification case," said attorney Alex Simpson, of the California Innocence Project. "It is the No. 1 factor in wrongful convictions across the country."

Jurors disregarded Vargas' alibi witnesses, including the manager of a bagel shop, who said he was working there the mornings of the attacks.

With advances in DNA technology, his lawyers were able in show that genetic evidence from the forcible rape was linked to the Teardrop Rapist and not Vargas.

Prosecutors concluded it was a case of mistaken identity and that new evidence had undermined their case, Deputy District Attorney Nicole Flood said in a letter to the judge.

Vargas' daughter, who was 10 when he was taken away, said it was hard growing up without a father and she often cried herself to sleep.

Holding her 7-year-old daughter's hand, Nunez-Vargas recounted the important events he'd missed: birthdays, father-daughter dances at Latina coming-of-age parties, graduations and his grandchild's birth.

She got legally married, but she postponed the ceremony so they can share one of those rites.

"I'm waiting for him to come home so I can do my big church wedding and be able to have him walk me down the aisle, which is every little girl's dream," she said. "I can't wait for that."

Meanwhile a California man who was exonerated of murder after serving 34 years of a life sentence filed a federal lawsuit against Ventura County, the district attorney's office and the sheriff's office.

Michael Hanline was 69 when he was freed from prison last November. A judge formally dismissed his murder case in April.

Hanline's lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles earlier this month, seeks unspecified damages, the Ventura County Star reported Monday.

Special Assistant District Attorney Michael Schwartz, who heads the county's conviction integrity unit, declined to comment on the suit.

In 1980, a jury convicted Hanline of first-degree murder for the 1978 slaying of Ventura resident J.T. McGarry, also known as Michael Mathers.

The California Innocence Project, whose lawyers worked for 15 years to free him, said Hanline was the longest-serving wrongfully incarcerated inmate in California history.