SAN FRANCISCO—On Monday, April 18, the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office announced after an extensive review and investigation by the San Francisco District Attorney’s Innocence Commission, District Attorney Chesa Boudin announced the exoneration of Joaquin Ciria for being wrongly convicted of killing Felix Bastarrica.
Ciria, now 61 years old, was arrested 32 years ago and maintained his innocence from the beginning. New evidence presented by Ciria’s counsel provided convincing proof that he was convicted on the basis of false testimony for another man’s crime. His case was the first one reviewed by the Innocence Commission since its formation. The court vacated his conviction and the District Attorney’s Office dismissed the case.
“Our office is proud of and grateful for the work of the Innocence Commission in rectifying the wrongful conviction of Mr. Ciria,” said Boudin. “Wrongful convictions continue to plague our justice system at great cost to the families, victims, and accused persons whose lives are devastated when the wrong person is convicted of a crime. Prosecutors have a duty to promote justice and correct injustices. Mr. Ciria spent more than 30 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Although we cannot give him back the decades of his life lost we are thankful that the court has corrected this miscarriage of justice.”
The San Francisco District Attorney’s Innocence Commission
The Innocence Commission is comprised of a panel of experts appointed by the District Attorney: Retired Judge LaDoris Cordell; Professor Lara Bazelon; Dr. George Woods; San Francisco District Attorney Chief of Post-Conviction Unit Arcelia Hurtado; and San Francisco Deputy Public Defender Jacque Wilson. The Commission reviews and reinvestigates cases involving possible wrongful convictions upon referral by the District Attorney’s Office. If the Commission, after its review, votes by a majority to vacate the conviction, the Commission makes a recommendation to the District Attorney and provides a memorandum consisting of findings of fact and conclusions of law to assist the District Attorney in his determination. District Attorney Boudin independently reviews the Commission’s investigation and retains the final decision-making power in each case.
Joaquin Ciria’s Case
The DA’s decision to recommend that the court overturn Ciria’s conviction followed an exhaustive, four-month investigation of Ciria’s claims by the District Attorney’s Innocence Commission. Based on the recommendation of the Commission and the District Attorney’s independent review of the investigation, District Attorney Boudin concluded that Ciria did not commit the murder of his friend, Felix Bastarrica.
In 1991, Ciria was convicted of the 1990 shooting death of Bastarrica. While no physical evidence linked the defendant Ciria to the crime, San Francisco police inspectors zeroed in on Ciria as the shooter based on rumors on the street and statements of the getaway driver, George Varela.
At trial, the jury heard three eyewitnesses identify Ciria as the shooter, two of which were cross-racial identifications by strangers whose views were compromised by distance and poor lighting during the late-night shooting. Crucial evidence was the identification made by Varela, who knew Ciria and testified—in exchange for complete immunity—that he drove Ciria to and from the scene. The jury was not aware of the pressure police exerted on Varela—who was a teenager at the time—to identify Ciria as the shooter or face charges himself. The jury heard no evidence of an alternate suspect, and no evidence that Ciria had an alibi, though two alibi witnesses were available and willing to testify.
As the Innocence Commission learned in the course of its investigation, another eyewitness—who was the victim’s best friend and knew all the parties involved—also witnessed the shooting and identified another person as the shooter. That witness did not testify at trial. Other witnesses confirmed details that corroborate the account of this new eyewitness, including the descriptions of the shooter initially provided by the stranger eyewitnesses, which closely matched the alternate suspect and do not match Ciria.
The Commission’s Investigation
The Commission’s investigation included interviews of key witnesses; consultation with Dr. Mitchell Eisen, an expert in eyewitness identification; and a thorough examination of the San Francisco Police Department’s file, the District Attorney’s file, and the trial record relating to this case. Lengthy efforts were made to notify the victim’s family and provide support through the process, but no victim next of kin were located.
Following the Commission’s investigation, the Commission unanimously agreed that key evidence presented at trial in support of Ciria’s conviction was not credible, that the defendant presented new evidence that would have likely not changed the outcome at trial, and that this new evidence was of such decisive force and value that it undermined the entire prosecution case and pointed unerringly to Ciria’s innocence.
“When a conviction is a perversion of justice because it deprives an innocent person of his freedom while robbing the victim and his family of justice, the District Attorney has a duty to correct that intolerable violation,” said Lara Bazelon, the Chair of the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office’s Innocence Commission. “The Innocence Commission members are proud to have been able to assist San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin in carrying out that all-important mission, and we wish Mr. Ciria and his family all the best as they move forward with their lives.”
In light of the Commission’s investigation, and following District Attorney Boudin’s independent review of the Commission’s findings, the District Attorney’s Office filed a concession in Ciria’s case, agreeing that the cumulative weight of the newly discovered evidence he presented undermines the prosecution’s case and that he is factually innocent. The case was presented to the court on behalf of the District Attorney and the Innocence Commission by Arcelia Hurtado, Chief of the Post Conviction Unit at the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, and on behalf of Mr. Ciria by Paige Kaneb and Melissa O’Connell of the Northern California Innocence Project and by attorney Ellen Eggers.
The court vacated Ciria’s conviction, relying heavily on the strength of the Innocence Commission’s expert witness, Dr. Mitchell Eisen; the newly discovered evidence of the testimony of Roberto Saccoro before the Commission members; and the live testimony the court took of the two witnesses who said that Varela lied.
After the conviction was vacated, the District Attorney’s Office dismissed the case and Ciria was ordered released. Ciria will be added to the National Registry of Exonerations.
“Joaquin’s case highlights so many issues with our system, including how long it takes to undo a wrongful conviction, the problems with using incentivized testimony, the unreliability of cross-racial identifications, and the ways people of color aren’t afforded the presumption of innocence,” said Paige Kaneb, Supervising Attorney at the Northern California Innocence Project, who represented Mr. Ciria. “Joaquin highlights the indominable nature of the human spirit–32 years were stolen from him and yet he has kept his big heart and easy smile and is full of joy as he looks forward to starting his life again.”
The San Francisco District Attorney’s Innocence Commission represents a first-in-the-nation approach to fulfilling the district attorney’s duty to rectify wrongful convictions. Though a growing number of district attorney’s offices across the county and in California formed Conviction Integrity or Conviction Review Units with the intention of re-examining questionable convictions, many of these units have failed to fulfill their stated purpose because they lack resources, flexibility, transparency, and—perhaps most crucially—independence in the review process.
Post-conviction cases, like Ciria’s, where an incarcerated person alleges that they have been wrongfully convicted can take years to investigate and litigate through the traditional adversarial process. By contrast, the Innocence Commission’s independence from the district attorney’s office, along with its collaborative investigative model, and reliance on the pro bono service of Commission members—each of whom represents a key perspective in the criminal legal system—allows the Commission to efficiently and fairly review claims of wrongful conviction on behalf of the district attorney.
The California legislature aims to replicate the success of the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office’s Innocence Commission through Assembly Bill 2706, sponsored by Assemblymember Marc Levine and co-sponsored by District Attorney Boudin.