A man convicted of murder in a 1991 case botched by police investigators and his defense attorney now expects to walk free within days, decades after he was declared guilty.
Joaquin Ciria, who has spent most of his adult life behind bars, has been fighting to prove his innocence since he was first incarcerated at age 29 for the murder of his friend, Felix Bastarrica, on Clara Alley in SoMa in 1990.
Ciria had petitioned against his wrongful conviction for years, but in recent years got the backing of the Northern California Innocence Project, which presented his case to the DA’s Innocence Commission, established by DA Chesa Boudin in 2020.
Last year, an eyewitness admitted that another man was responsible for the shooting.
Ellen Eggers, a former state public defender who has been working on Ciria’s case pro-bono since 2018, told Mission Local today that she had expected Ciria’s conviction to be successfully overturned, but had also hoped that the judge would find him factually innocent, a declaration that entitles Ciria some financial compensation for the time spent in custody. At present, victims can claim $140 a day.
Although Ciria is to be released from custody, he has not yet been proven innocent.
“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.”
Clad in an orange sweatshirt and sweatpants, Ciria today thanked the court for the opportunity to appear and fight his conviction.
In a lengthy speech before the courtroom, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Brendan Conroy today noted credibility issues with the new witnesses presented, and said the evidence was not necessarily “overwhelming” in favor of Ciria.
However, the new evidence from three witnesses raised enough questions about the prosecution’s star witness testimony that put Ciria in prison decades ago. Conroy said it was “reasonably likely that one juror would have changed their vote.”
One eyewitness, recently released from prison, has subsequently testified that another man he knew was responsible for the killing. Another two witnesses gave testimony that the prosecution’s star witness had admitted to lying about Ciria’s guilt.
Conroy offered a retrial for Ciria, but the attorneys from the prosecution moved to dismiss the case.
Ciria’s son Pedro, 32, said his father had been imprisoned since he was only weeks old, and he grew up visiting his father behind bars.
“His patience is what got him finally to this,” Pedro Ciria said. “I believed he was innocent for my whole life, and that’s what I was always told. And then once I started understanding the situation, it made more and more sense to me.”
The petition filed on Ciria’s behalf discusses how then-teenager George Varela, who had driven the shooter to the scene, was pressured to implicate Ciria by police investigators.
According to a transcript of a police interview with Varela, investigators threatened him not to “lie and cover up for” Ciria. Varela, who had a history of drug offenses was told by police: “You’re only 18 years old, you’ve been in shit as a juvenile, you don’t want to get in shit as an adult.”
Police told Varela that they knew Ciria was the culprit, although he did not fit the description of the shooter, and Varela eventually went along with the narrative and got himself immunity. This conversation was not presented to the jury at Ciria’s trial, one of several issues with the handling of Ciria’s case.
Varela’s sister, Denise Corretjer, was one of the new witnesses who helped to overturn Ciria’s case through her testimony that her brother admitted to wrongly naming Ciria as the killer.
“Basically, I knew that he was innocent and I just was young at the time, and I had a baby,” Corretjer told Mission Local at the courthouse today. Corretjer said she had gotten bits and pieces of the story, but had been more focused on her own life at the time of Ciria’s trial.
Varela, who was also called to court, invoked his right to remain silent.
Having been put on Ciria’s case by another inmate she was working with, Eggers first met with Corretjer in 2018.
“Each step I took in this case drew me in further to another step, until eventually, after conducting a full investigation, I became thoroughly convinced that Mr. Ciria had, in fact, been wrongfully convicted of murder,” Eggers wrote in a court declaration last year.
Ciria’s attorney at the time of his conviction, Randy Montesano, also provided a statement in which he admitted his own errors in handling Ciria’s case, errors he concluded “constituted ineffective assistance of trial counsel.”
In addition to leaving out the SFPD’s interview pressuring Varela to name Ciria, Montesano admitted that he failed to bring two alibi witnesses in defense of his client.
Those two witnesses, Ciria’s then-partner and her roommate, have maintained for decades that they were home with Ciria and his newborn baby at the time of the shooting. Both were present in court today and could be seen tearfully embracing each other and the attorneys involved in the case.
Judge Conroy acknowledged that the new witnesses who helped to overturn Ciria’s conviction were “justice-involved” and would not necessarily be inclined to cooperate with or proffer information to the police.
Attorney Paige Kaneb with the Northern California Innocence Project said that, although she had been working with Ciria since 2018, recent eyewitness testimony implicating a different person in the shooting solidified the case. Ciria is her office’s 35th exoneration. This case marks the San Francisco DA’s Innocence Commission’s first exoneration.
“There are estimates of one to three percent of cases are wrongful convictions,” Kaneb said. In a state with close to 200,000 incarcerated people, she said, the number of innocent people who may be imprisoned is “insanely high.”