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California Man Exonerated After 32 Years In Prison For Murder He Says He Didn't Commit

Joaquin Ciria is expected to be released from prison in a matter of days after a judge vacated his murder conviction after 32 years. 

By Constance Johnson
Exonerated inmate Joaquin Ciria with attorney's Paige Kaneb and Ellen Eggers

A San Francisco man is expected to be release from prison this week after spending more than 30 years behind bars for a murder he maintains he did not commit.

On, Monday, the San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin dismissed the case against Joaquin Ciria, 61, after Superior Court Judge Brendan Conroy overturned his conviction.

“It was unbelievable. You could not describe that feeling. You know for me to describe that feeling to you … it is no words,” Ciria told KPIX. “It is like you’re born again. You know like your whole life is starting again.”

Ciria said: “My biggest fear was to die in prison not fighting.”

He told the station that the first two years of his sentence were the hardest.

“I remember you know that every night I used to cover myself with a blanket and I would close my eyes real tight, and I said, ‘You know what? This is a dream. When I open my eyes, I’m going to be home. I’m going to be home. This cannot be happening,'” he remembered. “And I’d repeat it. I repeat it the same process all the time. But every time I opened my eyes, I was in the cell.”

Ciria was arrested in 1990 and convicted of first-degree murder in 1991. He was sentenced to life in prison for the fatal shooting of Felix Bastarrica, who was shot in the head after a fight erupted in an alley.

Ciria is the first person to be exonerated by the district attorney’s Innocence Commission, which Boudin created in 2020 to review possible wrongful convictions.

Ciria has long denied committing the crime, but his efforts to overturn his conviction got nowhere until the Northern California Innocence Project took on his case and eventually presented it to the DA’s commission.

“Our office is proud of and grateful for the work of the Innocence Commission in rectifying the wrongful conviction of Mr. Ciria,” Boudin said in a statement. “Although we cannot give him back the decades of his life lost, we are grateful that the court has corrected this miscarriage of justice.”

Boudin said in a statement that no physical evidence linked Ciria to the crime, but San Francisco police “zeroed in on Mr. Ciria as the shooter based on rumors on the street and statements from the getaway driver, George Varela.”                                                                                             

"Thirty-two years ago, you were taken away from your wife and your baby, and that is because the system failed you catastrophically," commission chair Lara Bazelon said during a news conference. "Now at long last, you have a chance to take back your life.”

The commission said it discovered a “cascade of errors” after spending 18 months reviewing the case.

“There was no DNA, no fingerprints, no murder weapon was ever recovered,” Bazelon said, according to Associated Press.

She also noted that Ciria had two alibi witnesses who were willing to testify that he was at home when the murder took place, but they were never called by the defense, possibly because they only spoke Spanish.

“Had a jury heard this case today there would not have been a conviction,” she said.

The commission was also swayed by the testimony of Roberto Socorro, who swore in a declaration that Ciria was not the killer and identified another shooter.

He waited years to come forward because he didn’t want to cooperate with police and the victim was his friend, and he wanted to find the killer and take revenge, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

But overwhelmed with guilt, Socorro finally decided to come forward, according to the Chronicle.

“I am deeply ashamed of my selfish decision to remain silent all these years,” Socorro wrote in his declaration, according to the newspaper.

After the hearing Ciria’s son, Pedro, who was six weeks old when his father was convicted, hugged his loved ones. His eyes were red from crying, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

“It feels good,” the now 32-year-old Pedro said of his father’s impending freedom.

Ciria told KPIX the first thing he wants to do when he gets out is to go on a walk with his son.

Ciria may be released from prison soon, but his legal fight is not over yet.

Ellen Eggers, a former public defender who has been working on Ciria’s case since 2018, told Mission Local she was hoping the judge would declare him factually innocent. That would entitle him to financial compensation of $140 for every day he spent in prison.

“We’ll take it to the next step, because I do believe he’s innocent,” said Eggers, “and he should be compensated for all these years that he lost his life in prison; you know, he lost everything.”

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