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California Man Freed After 33 Years in Prison for Shooting He Didn’t Commit
“I never lost hope,” Daniel Saldana said. “I’m innocent — 100 percent — I’ve been saying that from Day One.”
A California man who spent more than three decades behind bars for a shooting he never carried out was exonerated this week, prosecutors said.
Daniel Saldana was sentenced to 45 years in prison in 1990 after he was found guilty of attempted murder related to a Baldwin Park-area shooting incident a year earlier. At the time, he and two others were accused of opening fire on a group of six high school students, who they’d allegedly mistaken for gang members.
No one was killed, but two students sustained injuries in the shooting. He was ultimately convicted of six counts of attempted murder and one count of shooting at an occupied vehicle. Saldana was 22 at the time.
On Thursday, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office announced that Saldana had been exonerated, after he'd spent 33 years in prison.
“I never lost hope,” Saldana told reporters at a press conference following his release, according to CNN. “I’m innocent — 100 percent — I’ve been saying that from Day One.”
The former construction worker’s release was spurred on by a new review of the case this year by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office’s Conviction Integrity Unit, which ultimately concluded that “Daniel Saldana is innocent of the crimes he was convicted of.”
“As prosecutors, our duty is not simply to secure convictions but to seek justice,” Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón said in a statement. “When someone is wrongfully convicted, it is a failure of our justice system and it is our responsibility to right that wrong. We owe it to the individual who was wrongfully convicted and to the public that justice is served.”
“Mr. Saldana, you always maintained your innocence and I want to apologize to you once again, to you and your family for this failure,” Gascón added. “I know that this won’t bring back the decades you endured in prison, and I hope that our apology is some small comfort to you as you begin your new life.”
Exonerating evidence in the case first came to light in 2017 amid parole proceedings after one of Saldana’s co-defendants, Raul Vidal, admitted Saldana never participated in the shooting. The new exculpatory evidence, however, was never shared with Saldana or his lawyers, they said.
Gascón blamed the apparent miscarriage of justice on a former Los Angeles County deputy district attorney, who had attended Vidal’s parole hearing and “apparently did nothing.” That deputy district attorney doesn’t work at the office anymore, he said.
In February, the California Board of Parole Hearings heard the statement in question from Vidal’s parole hearing for the first time. That hearing ultimately paved the way for Saldana’s release this week.
“This information was clearly exonerating information, which the DA’s office was required to turn over to Mr. Saldana or his attorney, but it was not turned over,” Gascón said. “This failure to investigate this matter in 2017 cost Mr. Saldana an additional six years in prison.”
“This is overwhelming,” Saldana said Thursday. “I just knew that one day this was going to come. I’m just so grateful and I just thank God, Jesus.”
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation also confirmed Saldana’s release. In a statement, the agency expressed their approval of the move.
“Daniel Saldana’s claims of innocence by his co-defendant were made in a setting with the deputy district attorney present — making their office aware of these claims in 2017,” they said. “If the claims of innocence had been made in a setting without the deputy district attorney present, the Board would have been responsible to refer the matter to the prosecuting agency.”
Saldana plans to live and also be employed by his family, according to his lawyer, Mike Romano, CNN reported. His attorney noted that Saldana was “strikingly not bitter and angry, but still in quite a bit of shock.”
“He does not feel angry,” Romano explained. “He feels lucky. But it is also incredibly heartbreaking and tragic at the same time.”
Under state law, Saldana also qualifies for compensation for his wrongful conviction.
“It is to be determined exactly how much, but not an insignificant amount of money,” Romano said.