LOS ANGELES (CN) — One year ago, a state judge exonerated Luis Lorenzo Vargas of three sexual assaults for which he’d spent 16 years in prison. On Monday, Vargas sued the Los Angeles Police and Sheriff’s departments and the District Attorney’s Office, for putting him there.
Vargas claims police and prosecutors never disclosed that strikingly similar assaults continued even after he was in custody, all apparently committed by a man known as the Teardrop Rapist.
DNA evidence links the Teardrop Rapist to at least 39 rapes or sexual assaults on young women and girls from 1996 through 2012 — including the three that sent Vargas to prison.
In his federal lawsuit, Vargas accuses police investigators of improperly influencing the three victims to identify him by using suggestive or questionable techniques during lineups and photo array presentations.
He also sued the City and County of Los Angeles and LAPD Dets. Monica Quijano and Richard Tamez.
“These defendants deliberately and intentionally withheld evidence in the case which showed Vargas was innocent, and created and used false evidence against Vargas through the use of improper identification procedures,” the complaint states.
“As a result, his rights were violated and he spent almost two decades in prison for crimes he did not commit.”
The offices of the district attorney and Los Angeles city attorney on Tuesday declined to comment on the lawsuit, with which they had not yet been served.
One of Vargas’s attorneys, Craig Brenner withy Brenner & Boon in San Diego, referred questions to lead defense attorney Jan Stiglitz, a professor at California Western School of Law and a founder of the school’s California Innocence Project. Stiglitz did not return a call seeking comment.
He has had a productive year. Last week Stiglitz sued Ventura police and prosecutors on behalf of a man who has been exonerated of murder after spending 35 years in prison.
In May, he won a ruling from the California Supreme Court in May overturning the murder conviction of a man sent to prison 14 years ago based partly on questionable bite-mark evidence. Prosecutors dismissed those charges in June.
Vargas was convicted in June 1999 of assaulting the three victims between February and June 1998. All three — 17-year-old Karen P., 24-year-old Edith G., and 15-year-old Teresa R.— were Latina and were attacked at about 6 a.m. as they waited for a bus south of downtown Los Angeles.
A short Latino man, sometimes wearing a beanie, asked for directions, forced them to a secluded area at knifepoint, made them partially disrobe and then touched, or in Teresa R.’s case, raped, them. Edith G. and Teresa R. said the assailant had a tattoo of two teardrops at the corner of his left eye.
Vargas had a faded tattoo of one teardrop by his eye. He also had a 1992 rape conviction for a drunken attack on his girlfriend, according to press reports.
Those facts were enough for investigators, Vargas says. Detectives repeatedly included him or his photo in lineups or six-pack photo arrays presented to the victims. None of the victims identified Vargas with certainty as their attacker at the viewings, but all did during his trial.
“It was not until she viewed Vargas three separate times that Edith G. became positive that Vargas was the perpetrator,” the complaint states.
The 49-page lawsuit cites studies attesting to the unreliability of eyewitness identification, and its propensity to succumb to influence and bias.
“Studies have shown that eyewitnesses select non-suspects from photo and live lineups around 20 percent of the time. In fact, both the California Supreme Court and the United State Supreme Court have agreed with the numerous studies showing that eyewitness identifications are often unreliable,” the complaint states. (Citation omitted.)
Vargas claims the LAPD’s standard procedures for eyewitnesses were “misleading and suggestive,” and “caused the victims to falsely identify Vargas as the perpetrator.”
Worse, police and prosecutors never told his attorneys about the Teardrop Rapists’ crimes — a string of sexual attacks on young Latina women waiting for buses in early morning hours. “These attacks began before Vargas was even a suspect in this case, and they continued well after his arrest, conviction, and sentence,” according to the complaint.
Two took place before he was arrested and three more after he was in custody but before he was convicted. “Nobody from the Los Angeles Police Department — including Quijano and Tamez — disclosed this exculpatory information at any time,” Vargas says.
Vargas contacted the California Innocence Project after the Los Angeles Times ran a story in 2011 on the years-long hunt for the Teardrop Rapist. With prosecutors’ agreement, the project had DNA samples from the Teresa R case tested, which were found to match Teardrop samples.
A Los Angeles Superior Court judge set aside Vargas’s conviction on Nov. 23, 2015.
On Oct. 5 this year, a judge found Vargas “factually innocent of sexually assaulting all three victims.”
He seeks punitive damages for civil rights violations, including presentation of false evidence, failure to produce exculpatory evidence, and failure to train and supervise officers.