SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- After spending over three decades of his life behind bars for a murder he didn't commit, Joaquin Ciria was set free Wednesday afternoon, two days after being exonerated earlier this week.
On the day Ciria was taken away by police officers 32 years ago, he said he looked up at the apartment window where his six-week-old son was sleeping inside and whispered the words, "I will be back."
Ciria was officially exonerated of the 1990 shooting death of Felix Bastarrica in San Francisco Superior Court on Monday after 32 years in prison. He has been held in the San Francisco jail while his paperwork is being processed.
It's a moment Ciria has been waiting for more than half his life.
32 years and 1 day have passed since he was ripped away from Yohana Paiz and their son Pedro. Ciria hugged his son moments after walking out of the jail at around 1 p.m. Wednesday.
For his family, the journey of countless visits to prison, holidays missed, and life without a father-figure, has taken an emotional toll.
"It's been painful, seeing my son grow up alone. There's been a lot of pain," said Paiz.
"I'm glad I'm about to start a life with him after 32 years. The world is not the same when he went in. I'm glad he's home," said Pedro Ciria.
"It is a happy moment! It is a happy moment!" Ciria said to cheers in the crowd. "We've got a lot of job to do. There's some more people behind me in the same situation."
Overcome with emotion, Ciria's brother came up to him and embraced him, shouting "We knew he was innocent!"
RAW: Joaquin Ciria Speaks After His Release
"You know what? I the beginning, I did think I was going to lose it. I really was thinking, 'I cannot take this.' I was thinking that I was going to lose my mind," Ciria said of his time in prison. "But when you put faith, and your faith is attached to God, you have to keep going."
"This is what we do our work for. These moments are amazing. It is why we fought for 20 years to correct witness identification,
so mistakes like this don't happen," said Linda Starr with the Northern California Innocence Project.
"We knew and believed just as the judge vacated the conviction and we dismissed the case because we knew that Joaquin was innocent," said San Francisco District Attorney's Office spokesperson Rachel Marshall.
"Ultimately, he got a good judge who did the right thing: held a quick hearing, heard the witnesses and let him out. That's what should have happened a long time ago. But he's a patient man. He's a patient man," said Ciria's attorney Ellen Eggers.
When asked what he wanted to do first, Ciria said, "Today, I would like to eat some Cuban food."
Ciria told KPIX 5 in a interview in the San Francisco County Jail Monday that he had trouble believing he would be released, even after hearing it from a judge.
RAW: Sara Donchey Interviews Joaquin Ciria
"It was unbelievable. You could not describe that feeling. You know for me to describe that feeling to you...it is no words. It is like you're born again. You know like your whole life is starting again," Ciria said.
Ciria spent more than half his life in prison after he was arrested in 1990 for the shooting death of Felix Bastarrica in San Francisco's SoMa District. His exoneration came 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 name was cleared through the efforts of the NCIP and the Innocence Commission, which 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.
Ciria himself said he spent countless hours in Folsom State Prison's law library, studying the law in an attempt to continue to prove his innocence.
"My biggest fear was to die in prison not fighting," he said.
Ciria credits a meditation class he took for helping him to maintain his composure. He said he learned to be still and silent for long periods of time.
Kenny Choi contributed to this story.
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