by Keith Sanders
In April 2022, Joaquin Ciria was exonerated after being wrongfully convicted of killing Felix Bastarrica in 1991. The 61-year-old Ciria, who maintained his innocence from the beginning, became the first person exonerated by a new Innocence Commission under the aegis of now ex-San Francisco District Attorney, Chesa Boudin.
Ciria’s conviction in 1991 relied on “rumors on the street” that he was the person who fatally shot Bastarrica in 1990, as well as statements given to San Francisco police inspectors by George Varela, the getaway driver. Three eyewitnesses, including Varela, identified Ciria as the shooter at trial; however two of those witnesses’ accounts were undermined by poor lighting and distance. Moreover, the jurors were not told that Varela, a teenager at the time, had been pressured by police investigators to identify Ciria.
According to the Innocence Commission’s investigation, Ciria had two alibi witnesses who were not called by Ciria’s lawyers to dispute the State’s witnesses. More alarmingly, the Commission also uncovered another witness who had seen the shooting and had identified someone other than Ciria but did not testify at trial. Additionally, Varela has since recanted his testimony and admitted that Ciria was not the shooter.
The Innocence Commission concluded that if Ciria’s trial were held today, with Ciria’s alibis and Varela’s recanting, Ciria would be acquitted. Accordingly, the District Attorney’s office filed a concession in Ciria’s case, and the court subsequently vacated his conviction, with the DA’s office dismissing the case and ordering Ciria’s immediate release.
Former DA Boudin created the Innocence Commission to review convictions the DA’s office deem problematic to rectify wrongful convictions. “Wrongful convictions continue to plague our justice system at great cost to the families, victims, and accused persons,” Boudin said after Ciria’s exoneration.
The Commission is paneled by legal experts appointed by the DA: Judge LaDoris Cordell, retired, Professor Lara Bazelon, Dr. George Woods, Arcelia Hurtado, San Francisco DA’s Chief of Post-Conviction Unit, and Jacque Wilson, San Francisco’s Deputy Public Defender. After reviewing a case, if a majority of the Commission votes to vacate, the Commission provides a memorandum to the DA’s office with its findings. The DA, who has final approval, then independently reviews the conclusions of the Commission and determines whether to vacate.
The Commission comes amidst the growing number of wrongful convictions across the country. In California alone, “there have been more than 270 known wrongful convictions … causing innocent Californians to lose a total of 2,104 years of their lives, and costing California taxpayers over $275 million,” according to the National Registry of Exonerations, which started tracking exonerations in 1989.
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