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Crime News

Nearly 30 Years After Falsely Confessing To Rape, Robbery, California Man Is Finally Exonerated

In April 1996, 18-year-old Gerardo Cabanillas was convicted of multiple charges, including kidnapping and rape. Twenty-eight years later, DNA proved his innocence. 

By Elisabeth Ford
Gerardo Cabanillas looks forward during a press conference on his exoneration

A California man who spend nearly three decades in prison for a series of crimes he falsely confessed to has been exonerated thanks to DNA evidence.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office announced Tuesday the exoneration of Gerardo Cabanillas, who was falsely accused of a slew of crimes, including robbery, kidnapping and sexual assault in April 1996.

“Today, we acknowledge a grave injustice that has resulted in the unjust, more than 28-year incarceration of Mr. Cabanillas.” District Attorney George Gascón said at a news conference.

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“Upon thorough reexamination of the evidence and a comprehensive review of the case by my office’s Conviction Integrity Unit, it has become abundantly clear that a serious error was made,” he added. “I extend my deepest apologies to Mr. Cabanillas for the miscarriage of justice and the failure of our criminal legal system.

In January 1995, a man and a woman were robbed at gunpoint by two male assailants, who then sexually assaulted the woman, according to the district attorney. Days later, Cabanillas, at the time 18, was arrested because of a general resemblance to one of the suspects.  

Though no physical evidence tied him to the crime, after interrogations, Cabanillas admitted he was guilty and was charged with 14 felony counts.

(l-r) Laura Cabanillas Gerardo Cabanillas listen to Mike Semanchik at a press conference

Cabanillas has since said that during the interrogation, he was coerced into a confession, as he was promised to only receive probation for the crimes, according to Gascón.

While Cabanillas maintained his innocence throughout the trial, he was ultimately sentenced to 15 years to life in prison, on top of a definitive term of 72 years and four months.

Alissa Bjerkhoel, Interim Director of the California Innocence Project – a group dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals – at California Western School of Law, said that “False confessions are one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions in the United States.”

“Police are permitted to lie to suspects, including promises of leniency if the person confesses. That is exactly what happened here and, if it was not for the DNA evidence, Gerardo would have spent the rest of his life in prison,” she added.

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In 2019, the California Innocence Project filed a motion to resubmit the evidence collected during the investigation for DNA testing, per the district attorney. By March 2023, the reexamination concluded that the DNA found on the 1995 sexual assault victim was not a match with Cabanillas’.

After further investigation, it became evident to the district attorney’s office that Cabanillas did not commit the crimes and on Sept. 21, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge determined he was factually innocent and voided his conviction.

“We are thankful to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office for agreeing to a factual finding of innocence for Gerardo,” said Michael Semanchik, Executive Director of The Innocence Center. “This case highlights the importance of collaboration by all in pursuit of truth and justice, including innocence attorneys, students, investigators, and the government.

It is imperative that we reflect upon this case as a stark reminder that our criminal legal system is not infallible,” Gascón said. “We must collectively commit to doing better, to continuously improving our procedures, and to ensuring that every person who enters our legal system is afforded a fair and just process.

“The colossal damage done because of this wrongful conviction cannot be measured,” Bjerkhoel said. “We are thrilled for Gerardo and his family that the truth has finally set him free.”