A Los Angeles man who was wrongly convicted of rape 16 years ago has been cleared after DNA evidence linked the crimes to another man, according to USA Today.
Los Angeles was rocked by a series of brutal rapes in the late 1990s, where the suspect allegedly grabbed his hapless victims and threatened them with a weapon before pulling them into a secluded area and raping them. The suspect had infamously been dubbed as the “teardrop rapist” because victims testified to having seen a teardrop tattoo under his eye.
The brutality and scale of the rapes had forced FBI to identify the “teardrop rapist” as one of its most sought-after criminals.
Unfortunately, and due to a twisted coincidence of fate, Luis Vargas was arrested from his Los Angeles home because of a similar teardrop tattoo under his eye, and because of the fact that he was Hispanic. The “teardrop rapist” was believed to be Hispanic, too.
During his trial, victims misidentified Vargas as the man who had carried out some of the heinous crimes attributed to the “teardrop rapist.”
According to a report by the Los Angeles Times, Vargas was sentenced to 55 years in prison for three sexual assaults.
At the time of his conviction, prosecutors expected the crimes to cease now that the perpetrator was behind bars. Of course, the crimes continued even as Vargas spent his days in prison.
The Los Angeles man himself pleaded his innocence, but there seemed to be little hope for the already convicted prisoner. Vargas reached out to lawyers and students at the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law, and told them that he believed that the “teardrop rapist” was behind the crimes that had mistakenly been attributed to him.
Once the group took Vargas’ case in 2012, students and lawyers worked tirelessly to prove that the Los Angeles man was convicted wrongly, and on Monday, the Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Ryan granted a petition supported by prosecutors to release Vargas, according to Associated Press.
Vargas, who was convicted when he was 30, is now 46, and in the court, tears filled his eyes as he wiped them against the shoulder of his blue jail scrubs. The Los Angeles man was taken back into custody because of pending immigration issues, but he is expected to be home for Christmas.
“He is really positive, he is just an uplifting person,” said attorney Raquel Cohen of the California Innocence Project. “I think he’s let go of any bitterness and he’s just happy to move forward and be reunited with his family, hopefully for Christmas.”
During the now-infamous trial after which Vargas was convicted, he had told the following words to the jury.
“I am concerned because the individual who really did these crimes might really be raping someone out there, might really be killing someone out there.”
There was palpable emotion in the courtroom on Monday, and once Judge William Ryan declared Vargas a free man, the Los Angeles man’s mother and daughter could not stop their tears.
“I still feel a lot of anger,” Vargas’ mother, Blanca Alatorre, said in Spanish outside the courtroom, according to the Times. “This can’t happen to other people. It just can’t. It’s injustice.”
Back in 1999, prosecutors said the assaults were so similar, they were “signature crimes” that could only be committed by the same person. The women all corroborated each other by pointing to Vargas as the man who had raped them.
However, with improved technology, the Los Angeles man’s lawyers were now able to show that genetic evidence from the forcible rape was not linked to Vargas.
“This was a shaky witness identification case,” said attorney Alex Simpson. “This happens all the time. It is the number one factor in wrongful convictions across the country.”
Luis Vargas’ lawyers expect the Los Angeles man to be freed by immigration authorities because he was a legal resident at the time of his arrest. If that comes to pass before Christmas, as they expect, Vargas will celebrate his first Christmas with family in more than 16 years.