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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

San Jose may settle wrongful conviction claims for $12M

The city will consider paying $12 million to avoid an August trial on claims that three San Jose police officers fabricated evidence to wrongfully convict a man in 2003.

SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) — Attorneys for a man who was incarcerated for 17 years before his exoneration say the city of San Jose will settle charges against three cops who allegedly helped wrongfully convict their client.

San Jose officials Tuesday will decide whether to approve a $12 million agreement to end the wrongful conviction case, after a judge advanced the man’s misconduct claims to trial in March. Lionel Rubalcava filed claims against the officers and the city in 2020, following the Santa Clara County Superior Court’s 2019 finding of innocence that vacated his conviction.

Rubalcava, now 46, said detective Joe Perez and officers Steven Spillman and Topui Fonua fabricated portions of their police reports to make it appear that three eyewitnesses identified Rubalcava. He said the county prosecutor used those reports to pursue attempted murder charges against him, and focused the state’s arguments on the eyewitness claims.

San Jose City Attorney Nora Frimann did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the pending settlement, which San Jose City Council must approve or deny in a Tuesday meeting.

Amelia Green, an attorney for Rubalcava with the national civil rights law firm Neufeld Scheck Brustin Hoffmann & Freudenberger, said in a statement Tuesday that this is San Jose’s first settlement of a wrongful conviction suit against its own police officers.

“Given the clear evidence of serious police misconduct we would have put on at trial, the city of San Jose made the right move today,” Green said. “Not only should our client never have been prosecuted — the city should have long ago accepted responsibility for Lionel’s wrongful conviction.”

Rubalcava said Tuesday that his family is grateful for the news of the agreement.

“We are supposed to be able to trust police officers for our protection and safety,” he said. “In my case, the San Jose Police Department singled me out and framed me for a crime I didn’t commit.”

Nick Brustin, another attorney representing Rubalcava, said racism was an element in the 2003 conviction. According to the 2024 Silicon Valley Pain Index, an annual report of racism and income inequality from the San Jose Human Rights Institute, Black and Latino residents struggle with poverty and lower life expectancy. Recent police audits reported that Latino residents face excessive force by the San Jose Police Department, and members of the department have been accused of exchanging racist texts about Black residents.

“Lionel’s case is yet another example of how racism infects the criminal legal system, in which police too often are willing to prosecute any available young man of color,” Brustin said. “Neither Lionel nor the victims were served by the corrupt police work that led to an innocent man being prosecuted and the true shooter going free.”

U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman in March rejected the city’s attempts to shield the police officers with qualified immunity. The judge also advanced claims of withholding evidence and malicious prosecution against the three officers. She disagreed with the city’s argument that the police officers bore no ill will toward Rubalcava and that it didn’t ignore evidence of the reportedly falsified witness identifications.

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Categories / Civil Rights, Courts, Law

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