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Family of man wrongfully imprisoned for 32 years sues San Francisco investigators, police

The family of Joaquin Ciria demanded that the city of San Francisco pay for wrongfully getting the San Francisco man convicted of a murder he did not commit.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The family of a man who lost more than 30 years being wrongfully held in prison, who finally went free last spring, is now suing the city of San Francisco. 

Joaquin Ciria spent much of his life behind bars after being charged with first-degree murder in 1990 at the age of 29. He was officially exonerated of the shooting death of his friend Felix Bastarrica in San Francisco Superior Court last April, after 32 years in prison — at age 61.

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal court, Ciria’s family now demands that the city pay for his wrongful detention for more than three decades and face a jury trial. 

Ciria’s case was taken up by the Northern California Innocence Project in 2020, which said that police relied on rumors to target him and coerced another man who drove the actual shooter to falsely name Ciria as the gunman. The project said although the driver, George Varela, told police that Ciria was innocent, police told Varela he could either implicate Ciria or be charged.

Ciria never confessed to the crime and always maintained he was innocent, and Varela's sister and family friend both said Varela told them Ciria was innocent. An eyewitness imprisoned for an unrelated crime came forward in 2020 to say he saw another man, Candido Diaz, argue with Bastarrica at the scene before shots were fired. The eyewitness said Diaz left the scene in Varela's car.

The Innocence Commission — a volunteer team of legal and medical experts formed in 2020 by former San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin — helped lead the successful effort to clear Ciria’s name, winning his exoneration.

Now, Ciria’s son Pedro and former partner Yojana Paiz say that Ciria’s conviction was the direct result of the city and police department’s “unconstitutional investigative policies” and a failure to train or intervene to prevent constitutional violations. They said that the city failed to implement remedial measures to address “tainted, reckless and unconstitutional investigation and interrogation techniques.”

The lawsuit notes that at least five Black men were falsely convicted of murders that occurred between 1990 and 1991 in San Francisco based on fabricated evidence, unconstitutionally influenced witness identification or improperly incentivized evidence from San Francisco Police Department officers and inspectors. The plaintiffs say it was a pattern of tactics used by the city during the 1980s and 1990s, leading to unjustified convictions of people of color in San Francisco.

The plaintiffs also say that police maintained a practice of manufacturing unreliable suspect identifications — including by repeatedly suggesting that witnesses make less-than-certain identifications, selectively recording portions of interviews, falsely documenting witness identifications and priming witnesses to identify specific suspects.

The filing details various ways that the inspectors handling the original case prepared Varela to testify against Ciria. Plaintiffs say that inspectors threatened Varela with a murder charge if he did not “fall into line” and coerced Varela into adopting their narrative. They also repeatedly influenced unreliable witness identifications to further implicate Ciria, relying on unreliable descriptions of the killer that did not match him. 

Varela received multiple benefits, including repeated leniency from the District Attorney’s office, in exchange for his testimony. The plaintiffs say that on at least three occasions in 1990, Varela signed promises to appear relating to court dates and probation requirements, that he did not keep.

“The improper, coercive conduct of Gerrans and Crowley is the only reason Varela implicated Ciria, and the inspectors had good reason to know Ciria was innocent,” the plaintiffs say.

“Inspectors Gerrans and Crowley did not just fabricate a story designed to pin the Bastarrica murder on Ciria. They ignored reliable, consistent evidence demonstrating Ciria’s innocence throughout their investigation in favor of their false, planted narrative. Ciria’s attempts to assist the inspectors were met with unjustified, malicious reprisal that would rob Ciria of more than half of his life to date.”

The plaintiffs are suing for damages, including for losing contact with Ciria for decades due to his wrongful imprisonment, and claiming that the county inflicted both intentional and neglectful emotional distress by doing so. 

They also seek a jury trial to determine the amount in damages that they may be owed. Paiz described the loss of her romantic partner and the emotional toll of regularly visiting him as he was transferred between different prisons over the years. 

The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office and mayor's office did not respond to requests for comment before press time. Jen Kwart, representing the city attorney's office, said “Once we are served with the lawsuit, we will review the complaint and respond in court.”

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Categories / Civil Rights, Criminal, Government

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