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Joaquin Ciria, Wrongfully Convicted In San Francisco Murder, Exonerated After 32 Years Behind Bars

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- Joaquin Ciria, a man who has spent more than three decades behind bars for a murder he did not commit, was officially exonerated of the crime Monday in San Francisco Superior Court.

Ciria's mother Yojana Paiz was in the courtroom during the hearing. She told KPIX 5 she had stayed in touch with her son since the very beginning of his incarceration, with regular visits and phone calls.

UPDATE: Finally Exonerated, Joaquin Ciria Says Hearing News Was Like Being 'Born Again'

"It's very hard, you know? Seeing your kid, them taking away your son. It's sad, seeing your child growing up by himself," said Paiz. "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."

RAW: Sara Donchey Interviews Joaquin Ciria

Now 61 years old after spending more than half his life in prison, Ciria was arrested in 1990 for the shooting death of Felix Bastarrica in San Francisco's SoMa District. His exoneration comes 32 years to the day after he was arrested for the crime.

Bastarrica was actually killed by a mutual acquaintance of the two men, but Ciria was convicted after the actual killer began rumors that Ciria was the shooter. According to the Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP), police relied on the rumors to target Ciria and coerced another man who drove the actual shooter to the crime to falsely name Ciria as the gunman.

Although the driver, George Varela, told police that Ciria was innocent, police told the Varela he could either implicate Ciria or be charged with the murder, the NCIP said.

Based primarily on Varela's perjured testimony, Ciria was found guilty and sentenced to 31 years to life. Ciria never confessed to the crime and always maintained he was innocent.

Among the new evidence of Ciria's innocence presented by the NCIP was testimony by Varela's sister and family friend who both said Varela had admitted to them that Ciria was innocent. In addition, an eyewitness imprisoned for an unrelated crime came forward in 2020 to say he saw another man, Candido Diaz, argue with Bastirraca at the scene before gunshots rang out.

That eyewitness said Diaz got into Varela's car and fled the scene of the murder. Thirty years later, after the eyewitness was released from prison, he finally came forward to reveal for the first time that Diaz had killed Bastarrica, begging Ciria's family for forgiveness for letting their loved one stay in prison for decades for a crime he didn't commit, the NCIP said.

Ciria's former defense attorney also admitted to mistakes such as not playing the coercive portions of Varela's recorded interview during the trial and not presenting witnesses who maintained Ciria was at home with them and his newborn son at the time of the murder.

The Innocence Commission was formed in 2020 by San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin. The commission -- an all-volunteer team of legal and medical experts -- spent thousands of hours poring over police reports, court transcripts and other documents.

The Commission found the conviction hinged on testimony from "cross-racial" eyewitnesses who were compromised by low lighting conditions and long distances.

Lara Bazelon, Professor at the University of San Francisco, Director of the Law School's Racial Justice Clinic, and a member of the Innocence Commission, said San Francisco Police officers at the time developed "tunnel vision."

"And after an extremely coercive interrogation, [Varela] basically broke down and said, 'Whatever you say.' And then he repeated back the version of the story that had been fed to him. He then repeated that version with full immunity at trial," said Professor Bazelon.

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin said after reviewing the case, there was no indication of falsification of evidence, or that investigators tried to frame Ciria. Boudin said eyewitness testimony like that in the Ciria trial would not be admissible in court today, and there are now strict rules regarding interrogation of minors.

"And so we're confident that this particular kind of wrongful conviction would not occur today. And our hope is to prevent other kinds of misleading evidence from resulting in wrongful convictions going forward," said Boudin.

"We are delighted for Joaquin, who fought for so long to clear his name," said NCIP Attorney Paige Kaneb in a prepared statement. "He can now spend time with his 32-year-old son, who was a baby when his father was wrongfully taken away from him."

"And so to Mr. Ciria, and to his family who is here today, on behalf of the Innocence Commission, I would like to apologize to you. We cannot give you back those lost decades. I hope that today with our actions and the court's ruling, you can move forward knowing that you have been exonerated. That your resilience and persistence finally won the day. And that you now at long last have a chance to take back your life," said Professor Bazelon.

Ciria's mother said she accepted the apology.

"I mean, I have no choice now, you know? After 32 years of him being away, I have to accept it. I have no choice. But it's painful, you know?" said Paiz.

Ciria is entitled under state law for financial compensation, at a rate of $140 per day, over 32 years. It amounts to roughly $1.6 million dollars, tax free.

AB2706, authored by Assemblymember Marc Levine (D-Marin), now winding its way through Sacramento, would establish Innocence Commission Pilot Programs, similar to the one in San Francisco, in three unnamed counties.

Ladoris Cordell, retired Santa Clara Superior Court Judge, and a member of the Innocence Commsion, urged lawmakers and voters to support the bill.

"I say to voters, it is very important. And I do hope voters throughout California will support AB2706," said Cordell.

Ciria is currently being held at the San Francisco County Jail and could be released within the next five days. It is unclear if he will have to transfer back to the Folsom Prison, and officially be released there.

According to the NCIP, Ciria is looking forward to eating "good food" and spending time with his wife, who now resides in Texas.

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