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California Innocence Project Client Luis Vargas is Exonerated After 16 Years in Prison

© 2015, Francine Orr, Los Angeles Times. Used with Permission

The California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law has won another major victory in its ongoing mission to free the wrongfully convicted with the exoneration of Luis Vargas, who served 16 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Ryan has reversed the conviction of Vargas, who was accused of three rapes based on new DNA evidence obtained through the efforts of the project’s lawyers.

“I am thrilled to report that the California Innocence Project exonerated Luis Vargas! Luis has served 16 years in prison for three rapes we proved he did not commit,” says Justin Brooks, Director of the California Innocence Project. “This exoneration came about due to DNA testing which linked the three rapes to the ‘Teardrop Rapist,’ a serial rapist who has been responsible for at least 35 rapes and has been terrorizing Hispanic women in the Los Angeles area for nearly three decades.

“This victory is largely due to the outstanding work of California Western alumna and California Innocence Project staff attorney Raquel Cohen ‘09. Raquel worked tirelessly as the lead attorney in investigating the case, pursuing the DNA testing, drafting motions and negotiating with the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office.” 

Brooks adds, “The exoneration came about due to cooperation with the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office and their new Conviction Integrity Unit.”

Although exonerated, Vargas had an immigration hold and remains in custody. The Project hopes for a speedy release so Vargas can spend the holidays with his loved ones.

In late 2012, the California Innocence Project requested DNA testing of key pieces of evidence from the crimes that had never been examined at the time of Vargas’ conviction. The Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office agreed to the testing. Based on the exculpatory results showing the Teardrop Rapist as the perpetrator, who is known for a tattoo under his eye in the shape of a teardrop, and has never been caught. The Project filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus asking for his conviction to be reversed. After reviewing the petition, the DA’s office agreed the DNA results completely undermined the prosecution’s case and pointed unerringly to Vargas’ innocence.

On the day of his sentencing, Vargas presciently told the court, “I’m concerned [the] individual [who] really did these crimes might really be raping someone out there, might really be killing someone out there.” Vargas sent the Project a letter talking about the Teardrop Rapist and suggested the Project seek DNA testing of any remaining biological material.

The true perpetrator in the case for which Vargas was wrongfully convicted sought out Hispanic women at bus stops in the early morning hours and asked for directions before forcing them into an alley. The crimes were so similar that police and prosecutors agreed at Vargas’ trial that they had to have been committed by the same person. The Teardrop Rapist had previously been linked to 11 crimes through DNA and suspected of approximately 35 total in the Los Angeles area, and is on the FBI’s most wanted by list.

Witnesses linked Vargas to the crime because he had a similar tattoo. Based solely on eyewitness identification, Vargas was wrongfully convicted of sexual assault and kidnapping of three women in 1999.

“Bad eyewitness identifications are one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions,” said Brooks. “It’s amazing that Vargas will finally be released after more than 16 years of wrongful incarceration. It’s time for him to get back to his family and his life. Hopefully, this new evidence will help police catch the true perpetrator.”

“I’m so pleased that the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office agreed to examine the case and join us in the petition to reverse the conviction,” said Raquel Cohen ‘09, staff attorney of the California Innocence Project, who investigated the case, requested DNA testing, and ultimately filed the Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus that exonerated Vargas. “This is how cases should be resolved.”

Since the California Innocence project was founded in 1999, its lawyers and students have now exonerated 15 people who were wrongfully convicted and spent time in prison for crimes they did not commit.