A Los Angeles Superior Court judge Monday ordered the release of a man who has spent 16 years behind bars for three sexual assaults that his attorneys say were committed by a serial rapist still at large.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William C. Ryan granted Luis Lorenzo Vargas’s petition for habeas corpus, citing a letter from the District Attorney’s Office concluding that DNA testing “undermined the entire prosecution case and points unerringly to innocence.”
It “can’t get any better for the petitioner,” Ryan said.
However, Vargas is subject to an immigration hold and will be released into the custody of federal officials. Vargas was a lawful permanent resident at the time of his arrest, and the immigration hold was put in place as a consequence of his sentencing in 1999.
The District Attorney’s Office said it had no discretion in the immigration matter, while Vargas’ attorney told reporters they were hopeful that “ICE does the right thing.”
DNA tests last year on evidence from one of the attacks excluded Vargas, 46, as a suspect and pointed instead to an unidentified man who has been dubbed the “Teardrop Rapist’ wanted in more than 30 assaults in the Los Angeles area.
“Now we know of three more (cases),” said Alex Simpson, associate director of the California Innocence Project at the California Western School of Law in San Diego.
Prosecutors had argued at Vargas’s trial that the three assaults for which he was tried “were signature crimes that could be committed by only one person.”
At his trial, three victims identified Vargas, who had previously served time for forcibly raping a girlfriend, as the man who attacked them. One, a 15-year-old girl, was raped. In the other two cases, Vargas was accused of attacking the victims with the intent of raping them.
Vargas has a teardrop tattoo under his left eye and two of the victims said their assailant had two teardrop tattoos under his left eye.
“It’s so powerful for somebody to come in and say, ‘That’s the guy,”‘ Simpson said, noting that witnesses can be “100 percent confident” and still wrong.
Jurors found him guilty even though defense witnesses testified that Vargas had worked the early morning shift at a bagel shop during the time of the assaults. The shop didn’t document employee hours and couldn’t produce records to clear Vargas.
“Bad eyewitness identifications are one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions,” according to Justin Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project.
DNA technology like that used to exonerate Vargas wasn’t available at the time of his trial.
“Technology really has changed the face of the justice system,” Simpson said.
At his sentencing in 1999, when he was given a 55-year term, Vargas pleaded with a judge, telling the court he was “concerned (the) individual (who) really did these crimes might really be raping someone out there, might really be killing someone out there.”
Raquel Cohen, the Innocence Project attorney handling Vargas’s case, said he’s “really positive … he’s let go of any bitterness.”
Vargas’s daughter, Crystal, told reporters that she was “so relieved” and spoke of other innocent men behind bars.
“They are many more out there who are looking for a ray of hope,” she said, telling a story of taking her daughter to visit Vargas and seeing “that look on my dad’s face, to finally meet one of his grandchildren.”
She said she hoped that she and her father would be reunited soon.
— Wire reports