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Man wrongly convicted of killing his friend in 1990 walks free after 32 years in prison

Police fixated on Joaquin Ciria and threatened to charge a friend of his with murder if he didn't implicate Ciria.

Man wrongly convicted of killing his friend in 1990 walks free after 32 years in prison
Image source: YouTube screenshot/NBC Bay Area

Editor's note: This article was originally published on April 21, 2022. It has since been updated.

Joaquin Ciria, who spent 32 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit, is finally able to walk free. Ciria was convicted of killing his friend in San Francisco in 1990, but he has always maintained that he didn't commit the crime. Thanks to an extensive review and investigation by the San Francisco District Attorney's Innocence Commission, the 61-year-old has been released, confirmed San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin in an online statement. “We are delighted for Joaquin, who fought for so long to clear his name,” said NCIP Attorney Paige Kaneb. “He can now spend time with his 32-year-old son, who was a baby when his father was wrongfully taken away from him."



 

Ciria was convicted of killing his friend Felix Bastarrica. There was no physical evidence linking Ciria to the crime. San Francisco police inspectors focused on him "based on rumors on the street and statements of the getaway driver, George Varela," according to the district attorney, reported CNN. Northern California Innocence Project said Bastarrica was actually killed by a mutual acquaintance of Varela and Ciria. George Varela had driven the actual shooter to the crime and also admitted the same to the police originally. The cops were fixated on Ciria and pressed Varela to falsely name Ciria as the shooter. The cops threatened to charge him with the murder if he didn't comply with their demand of implicating Ciria. Varela agreed to be a witness and agreed to testify to “whatever (police) said.” This was in spite of Ciria having two alibi witnesses, who were never heard at trial.



 

 

Based on Varela’s perjured testimony, Ciria was found guilty and sentenced. It was “newly discovered evidence” that helped exonerate Ciria. The new evidence included testimony by a family friend and Varela’s sister that Varela had admitted to them both that Ciria was innocent. Another crucial piece of evidence came in the form of an eyewitness who said he had seen and heard another man, Candido Diaz, arguing with the victim before gunshots were fired. He also saw Diaz get into Varela’s car and flee the scene of Bastarrica’s murder. The witness had been in prison for an unrelated crime and after he was released from prison 30 years later, he sought out Ciria’s and Bastarrica’s families to reveal the truth that Diaz had killed Bastarrica. He begged for forgiveness from Ciria's family for not coming forward earlier and letting their loved one languish in prison.

Ciria was helped by an admission by his former defense attorney of not playing the coercive portions of Varela’s recorded interview during the trial and failing to call Ciria’s alibi witnesses—who have maintained for over three decades that he was at home with them and his newborn son. “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.” Ciria's mother, Yojana Paiz, got emotional on hearing the news. "It's very hard, you know? Seeing your kid; them taking away your son. It's sad, seeing your child growing up by himself," she said. "But finally, we're here. We're at the end now. He's gonna be out. Whatever God has for us, we have to accept it."



 

 

Ciria is entitled to compensation for the wrongful conviction. According to California state law, he will receive $140 per day for the 32 years he spent in prison, which amounts to a little over $1.6 million, according to the California Victim Compensation Board. "As a result of this wrongful conviction, the State stole 32 birthdays, 32 Christmases, 32 years in which he could not be with his son for all the special moments," said attorney Paige Kaneb of Northern California Innocence Project. "Yet Joaquin has kept his big heart and easy smile and is full of joy as he looks forward to starting his life again."

NCIP is a nonprofit clinical program of Santa Clara University School of Law whose mission is to promote a fair, effective and compassionate criminal justice system and protect the rights of the innocent. 

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