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Luis Vargas

Other California Sexual Assault Exonerations
https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/Luis_Vargas.jpg
Between February and July 1998, a man armed with a knife attacked three women in Los Angeles, California. One of the women was raped and the other two were assaulted, but escaped before they were raped.

The first attack occurred at 6 a.m. on February 3, 1998 when 17-year-old Karen P., was walking to a bus stop to go to high school. A man forced her up against a fence at knifepoint and fondled her genitals and breasts before a loud noise startled him and he fled. She described the man as Hispanic, about 25 to 30 years old, black hair, brown eyes, about 5 feet 7 inches tall, a medium build and wearing a gray sweatshirt and jeans.

The second attack occurred on May 30, 1998 when 24-year-old Edith G., was attacked by a knife-wielding man as she walked to a bus stop at 6 a.m. She obeyed his command to lean against a nearby car, but refused to pull down her clothes. When she said that someone was watching them, the man fled. She described the man as Hispanic, 5 feet, 7 inches tall with two tattoos of teardrops next to his left eye.

The third attack occurred on June 5, 1998 when 15-year-old Teresa R. was walking to a bus stop at about 6 a.m. A man with a knife forced her to accompany him behind an apartment building where he raped her. She described her attacker as Hispanic, with tattoos of teardrops near his left eye, about 5 feet six inches tall, between 30 and 40 years old and wearing “some sort of beanie.”

Based on the descriptions and the similarities of the attacks, Los Angeles police concluded that the same person committed all three attacks—the victims all were attacked at about 6 a.m. by a man with a knife as they walked to a bus stop. The police soon focused on 29-year-old Luis Vargas because he had a single teardrop tattoo under his left eye.

All three victims identified Vargas in photo lineups, although with less than 100 percent certainty.

Karen P., who never said she saw a teardrop tattoo, said her attacker was either Vargas or another man in the lineup before she finally settled on Vargas, saying she recognized him by a bump on his nose.

Edith G. picked Vargas from a photo lineup, although she said her attacker was heavier than Vargas and had much less hair. She was shown a second photo lineup several days later and again identified Vargas, but said she was not 100 percent certain. Several months later, when shown a photograph of a live lineup that included Vargas, she said, “I am not too sure. I believe I recognize his face.”

Teresa R. viewed two separate photo lineups and a live lineup. After selecting Vargas in the first photo lineup based on the single teardrop tattoo, she said his nose was different from her attacker’s nose. She later viewed another photo lineup that contained a more recent photo of Vargas and again identified him, though she said the 29-year-old Vargas looked younger than her attacker.

Vargas was arrested on July 21, 1998. He was charged with rape, sodomy and kidnapping Teresa R. and assault with intent to rape Edith G. and Karen P.

In June 1999, Vargas went to trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court. The three victims all said they were positive that Vargas was their attacker. By that time, three other sexual assaults had occurred in similar fashion in the same geographic area, but the police failed to disclose those crimes to the defense.

Vargas presented an alibi defense. Witnesses testified that from February to June 1998, when the attacks occurred, Vargas was the manager of two different bagel shops—one in Beverly Hills and the other in Hollywood—and was required to be at the shops by 5 a.m. or 5:30 a.m. to open up for business at 6 a.m. Although one of the attacks occurred on a Saturday when Vargas was not working, the defense argued that Vargas was innocent because the prosecution and police believed that he committed all three attacks.

On June 15, 1999, the jury convicted Vargas of all counts. Before he was sentenced, Vargas told the judge, “I’m concerned (the) individual (who) really did these crimes might really be raping someone out there, might really be killing someone out there.” The judge then sentenced Vargas to 55 years in prison.

In 2011, after numerous appeals in state and federal court had been unsuccessful, Vargas sought assistance from the California Innocence Project. In a letter, Vargas said that he believed he resembled the description—including a teardrop tattoo—of a man who police called the “Teardrop Rapist” and who was believed responsible for 35 unsolved rapes beginning in 1996 in the same general vicinity as the three attacks attributed to Vargas.

In 2012, the California Innocence Project was appointed to represent Vargas to investigate the possibility of obtaining DNA testing. Although no physical evidence had been collected from Edith G. or Karen P., the prosecution was able to locate the rape kit and clothing from Teresa R. In October 2013, with the agreement of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, a judge ordered that the evidence be tested.

In March 2015, the California Innocence Project filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus to vacate Vargas’s convictions because the DNA tests had excluded him as the rapist.

The DNA profile from sperm found on Teresa R.’s clothing was linked to the DNA profile that has been found in some of the many unsolved sexual assaults attributed to the “Teardrop Rapist.”

“The newly discovered DNA evidence demonstrating that the ‘Teardrop Rapist,’ an unidentified sexual predator responsible for approximately thirty-five attacks, is the true perpetrator, completely undermines the prosecution’s case and points unerringly to Vargas’s innocence,” the petition stated.

On November 10, 2015, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, in response to the habeas petition, urged that Vargas’s convictions be vacated, saying that it had “concluded that Teresa R, honestly, but mistakenly, identified Vargas at trial as her assailant. When the results of the DNA tests are considered in light of the three victims’ tentative pre-trial identifications, the (prosecution) no longer has confidence in the convictions rendered against Mr. Vargas.”

On November 23, 2015, the petition was granted and the prosecution dismissed the charges. In November 2016, Vargas filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County. In July 2017, California Gov. Jerry Brown approved $886,760 in state compensation for Vargas.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 11/30/2015
Last Updated: 7/19/2017
State:California
County:Los Angeles
Most Serious Crime:Sexual Assault
Additional Convictions:Assault, Kidnapping
Reported Crime Date:1998
Convicted:1999
Exonerated:2015
Sentence:55 years
Race:Hispanic
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:29
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes