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DA Chesa Boudin’s Innocence Commission helps free man 3 decades after conviction in SoMa murder case

Chesa Boudin attends a press conference in Potrero Hill on November 23, 2021. | Camille Cohen

A San Francisco judge on Monday overturned the conviction of a man who spent more than three decades in prison for a murder he says he didn’t commit, marking a victory for District Attorney Chesa Boudin’s newly formed Innocence Commission.

Joaquin Ciria, 61, has been imprisoned since a jury convicted him in 1991 of shooting and killing his friend Felix Bastarrica in a South of Market alley. San Francisco Superior Court Judge Brendan Conroy vacated his conviction Monday at the request of the District Attorney’s Office.

Boudin recommended Ciria’s release based on the findings of the Innocence Commission, an independent panel of experts including a retired judge who reviewed the case. The commission is part of a series of initiatives that Boudin enacted after winning a 2019 election on a platform of reforming the city’s criminal justice system. Ciria’s case was brought to the commission by the Northern California Innocence Project.

Boudin celebrated the ruling at a press conference Monday, but said the decision cannot undo decades of unjust suffering. The district attorney, who is facing a June recall election, called for the continued review of other potential wrongful conviction cases to address a problem that he said is costly and widespread throughout the U.S.

“Mr. Ciria has been in prison for more than 30 years for a crime he did not commit and for which he has always maintained his innocence,” Boudin said. “He was torn away from an infant baby at the time of his arrest.”

The ruling came after Ciria’s attorneys, Paige Kaneb and Ellen Eggers, petitioned the court for his release from prison last January.

The attorneys argued that prosecutors relied on unreliable eyewitness identifications and the false testimony of a “teenage drug addict” who was coerced by police into identifying Ciria as the shooter, according to court records. The attorneys also presented a new witness who named another man as the shooter.

“We are delighted for Joaquin, who fought for so long to clear his name,” Kaneb said in a 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.”

After a four-month investigation that included an interview with the witness, court records show the Innocence Commission found the new evidence “undermined the entire prosecution case and pointed unerringly to innocence.”

Lara Bazelon, chair of the Innocence Commission and a law professor at University of San Francisco, said the case was built on an “extremely coercive” police interrogation of a troubled youth, as well as “very dubious” eyewitness identifications of Ciria as the shooter by two strangers.

“What happened here was a cascade of errors that started with police focusing on Mr. Ciria as their suspect,” Bazelon said at the press conference. “What they did once they had that tunnel vision was force every single piece [of evidence] to fit within that theory, even though they really didn’t.”

Boudin said there was no indication that police falsified evidence or intended to frame Ciria, but rather that the conviction resulted from police relying on dodgy evidence that would not hold up in court today.

It’s unclear when Ciria will be released from prison.

Assistant District Attorney Arcelia Hurtado told reporters the office dismissed the case against Ciria after the judge vacated his conviction. Hurtado said the judge relied heavily on the work of the Innocence Commission.

“The strength of this new investigation by the Innocence Commission made it abundantly clear that there is no way a jury would have convicted Mr. Ciria had they heard this evidence,” Hurtado said.

Retired Judge LaDoris Cordell, a member of the Innocence Commission, stressed that the panel focuses solely on the facts of a case and are not advocates for the wrongfully convicted.

“We are, however, advocates for justice. We are advocates for holding our criminal legal system accountable,” Cordell said at the press conference. “The commission’s review of the Ciria case was lengthy and it was detailed.”

Cordell also urged voters to support Assembly Bill 2706, which Boudin is sponsoring along with Assemblymember Marc Levine. The bill would establish pilot programs modeled on Boudin’s Innocence Commission in other California counties.