CONTACT: Rachel Marshall / (415) 416-4468 / Rachel.Marshall@sfgov.org
Director of Communications / Policy Advisor / Assistant District Attorney
SAN FRANCISCO, CA—Today, following an extensive review and investigation by the San Francisco District Attorney’s Innocence Commission, District Attorney Chesa Boudin announces the exoneration of Joaquin Ciria for being wrongly convicted of killing Felix Bastarrica. Mr. Ciria, who is now 61 years old, was arrested exactly 32 years ago and has maintained his innocence from the beginning. New evidence presented by Mr. Ciria’s counsel provided convincing proof that Mr. Ciria was convicted on the basis of false testimony for another man’s crime. Mr. Ciria’s case was the first one reviewed by the Innocence Commission since its formation. Today, the court vacated his conviction and the District Attorney’s Office dismissed the case against him.
“Our office is proud of and grateful for the work of the Innocence Commission in rectifying the wrongful conviction of Mr. Ciria,” said District Attorney 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 made up 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 District Attorney’s decision to recommend that the court overturn Mr. Ciria’s conviction in this case followed an exhaustive, four-month investigation of Mr. 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 Mr. Ciria did not commit the murder of his friend, Felix Bastarrica.
In 1991, Mr. Ciria was convicted of the 1990 shooting death of Mr. Bastarrica. Though no physical evidence linked Mr. Ciria to the crime, San Francisco police inspectors zeroed in on Mr. 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 Mr. 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. Most crucial was the identification made by Mr. Varela, who knew Mr. Ciria and testified—in exchange for complete immunity—that he drove Mr. Ciria to and from the scene. What the jury did not hear, however, was evidence of the extreme pressure police exerted on Mr. Varela—who was a teenager at the time—to identify Mr. Ciria as the shooter or face charges himself. The jury heard no evidence of an alternate suspect, and no evidence that Mr. 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 had not testified 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 more closely match the alternate suspect and do not match Mr. Ciria.
If this case were to be tried today, the jury would also hear from two witnesses close to Mr. Varela—one, his sister, the other, a close family friend—who say that Mr. Varela has since admitted to them that Mr. Ciria was not the shooter and that Mr. Varela testified falsely at trial. Finally, a jury today would hear from two alibi witnesses who can account for Mr. Ciria’s whereabouts at the time of the crime and who have maintained his innocence for more than 30 years.
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. Extensive efforts were also 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 Mr. Ciria’s conviction was not credible, that Mr. Ciria had presented new evidence that would have more likely than 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Ciria’s case, agreeing that the cumulative weight of the newly discovered evidence he presented undermines the prosecution’s case and that Mr. Ciria 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.
Today, the court vacated Mr. 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 Mr. Varela lied.
After the conviction was vacated, the District Attorney’s Office dismissed the case and Mr. Ciria was ordered released.
Mr. Ciria’s Case Exemplifies the Problem of Wrongful Convictions
Wrongful convictions remain a significant problem in the United States—and California is no exception. Since the National Registry of Exonerations began tracking wrongful convictions in 1989, there have been more than 270 known wrongful convictions in California – causing innocent Californians to lose a total of 2,104 years of their lives, and costing California tax-payers over $275 million. Studies on the causes of wrongful convictions demonstrate that key contributing factors include mistaken eyewitness identification, false testimony, and official misconduct. All three of those factors were present in Mr. Ciria’s case and led to his wrongful conviction in this case. Mr. 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.”
State Legislation Modeled on the DA’s Innocence Commission
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 have 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.
Moreover, post-conviction cases, like Mr. 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 hopes to build on and 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.
 Dr. George Woods is currently on leave and Dr. Michael Meade is serving as interim commissioner.