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Luis Figueroa

Other Sexual-Assault Exonerations with Mistaken Witness Identification
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On March 11, 1995, a 21-year-old senior at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut reported that she had been attacked and raped as she tried to enter her apartment near campus. The woman was treated at a local hospital, and evidentiary samples were collected using a rape kit.

The woman told New Haven police that her attacker was a young, Hispanic man. Detectives inputted her descriptions into a computer program, which created a list of 70 potential suspects. The woman looked at photos of the men and said that 20-year-old Luis Figueroa was her assailant. She would later make a second photo identification.

Figueroa had grown up in a household that was often dysfunctional. He suffered from seizures, likely caused by a traumatic brain injury he received as a child. At the time of the Yale attack, Figueroa was considered an escaped felon, because he had walked away from a court-ordered drug-treatment program imposed as part of a plea deal to resolve charges of second-degree assault and third-degree larceny. A warrant was issued for his arrest on March 28, 1995.

On April 1, 1995, a second woman, a student at Southern Connecticut State University, reported she was raped. She was also treated at a hospital, and evidence was collected. She said she had met her assailant at a club, left with him voluntarily, but was later sexually assaulted. The woman never identified Figueroa, but her friends said he looked like the assailant.

Police arrested Figueroa at his mother’s apartment on April 3, 1995. She would later say that her son told her he “would be coming right back.”

At the police station, Figueroa gave a statement and said he remembered having sex with a woman at around the same time frame that the Yale student reported the rape. Figueroa said the sex was consensual and described his partner as a Hispanic woman wearing a long skirt. He said they had met at a bar. By contrast, the Yale student was white and was wearing jeans.

On November 6, 1995, state prosecutors offered Figueroa a plea deal of 15 years in prison on the March 11 sexual assault. He turned it down. On January 16, 1996, prosecutors also charged him with sexual assault of the second student, despite the fact that the woman had never identified Figueroa.

Then, in May 1996, the State of Connecticut Forensic Lab reported the results of the DNA testing on the evidence collected from the second victim. In this case, unlike the first reported sexual assault, there was sufficient genetic material to test with the available technology. Figueroa was excluded as a contributor in the second attack. The charge was dismissed, and the New Haven State Attorney’s Office sweetened the plea deal on the Yale attack to 12 years.

On June 17, 1996, Figueroa accepted the offer and entered an Alford plea of guilty to first-degree sexual assault, first-degree robbery, and first-degree kidnapping. Alford pleas allow defendants to plead guilty without admitting guilt but acknowledging that the state has sufficient evidence to convict. In this instance, the state had a sympathetic witness who had picked Figueroa out of a photo lineup. In addition, Figueroa lacked a strong alibi.

Figueroa appeared alone at his plea hearing, accompanied only by his attorney. The victim spoke to Judge Robert Devlin of New Haven Superior Court about her post-attack trauma and her bouts with suicidal thoughts.

Devlin later said that Figueroa’s Alford plea notwithstanding, he had no doubt that the attack occurred the way the victim said it had. He told Figueroa that “I will … take you out of society for a long period of time for the best years of your life … and to make you a person that does not walk among decent law-abiding people. And you deserve that.”

Figueroa remained in prison until March 30, 2007, when he was released on five years of probation, which was enhanced because of his status as a convicted sex offender. He would later state that he suffered physical and mental abuse in prison and discouraged visitors because he was so depressed. He also said that he could have been released earlier if he had admitted his guilt, which he refused to do.

Between the time of Figueroa’s conviction and his parole, there had been significant advances in both the technology that analyzed DNA evidence and the databases that enabled this evidence to be stored and shared.

In 2007, the New Haven State’s Attorney’s Office received notification from the Combined DNA Index System, known as CODIS, that a “hit” had come back on the DNA sample from the April 1, 1995 attack, linking the sample to a convicted felon named Julio Rodriguez. Prosecutors reopened the investigation and obtained a fresh sample from Rodriguez, which confirmed the results from the original sample. Rodriguez was arrested in April 2008.

James Clark was the assistant state’s attorney responsible for prosecuting Rodriguez. Because the files in the April and March attacks were cross-referenced, Clark became interested in the earlier incident involving the Yale student.

He would later write: “The cases were strikingly similar in the description of the perpetrator, the location of the crimes, the manner in which the crimes were carried out, and the language the perpetrator used.”

Clark learned of Figueroa’s Alford plea, and after making a chart and comparing details, he thought that an “innocent man may have been wrongly convicted.” He knew that there had been improvements in DNA analysis, and in June 2008, he asked the state forensic lab whether it could analyze the DNA sample from the victim in Figueroa’s case. The lab responded a month later that it could. On August 5, 2008, Clark asked the lab for an update. He did not get a response, and he didn’t follow up. “This failure on my part was unintentional, but clearly negligent,” he said.

Rodriguez pled guilty to the second sexual assault on December 2, 2008 and was sentenced on May 20, 2009.

Between the time of Rodriguez’s plea and his sentencing, the forensic lab finished its analysis on the DNA from Figueroa’s case. On February 2, 2009, the lab reported that Figueroa was eliminated as a source of the male DNA profile on the vaginal swabbing and nasal-mucous sample. By contrast, the lab reported, Rodriquez could not be eliminated as the source.

The report was sent to the state’s attorney’s office and was apparently placed in the Rodriguez file, but Clark said he never saw it. By this time, he said, he was handling two other prosecutions and another attorney handled Rodriguez’s plea and sentencing.

After his release, Figueroa struggled with substance abuse and other problems. He was frequently homeless because he could not find landlords who would rent to him. He saw his photo on lists of sexual offenders and said people treated him “like a monster.” Figueroa was incarcerated for 185 days in 2011 for violating the strict conditions of his probation. He attended sex-offender treatment groups sessions, where he was scorned and subjected to punishment because he would not admit his guilt.

Figueroa’s desperate situation, according to later court filings, pushed him into a stormy and at times violent relationship with a woman who also had substance-abuse problems. Their fights resulted in subsequent arrests for assault and breach of the peace that were prosecuted more harshly in part because of Figueroa’s sexual-assault conviction. One of these arrests, in 2013, also triggered probation violations resulting in another 173 days in jail.

In June 2014, Figueroa was in the New Haven County Jail, unable to make bail and awaiting trial on a domestic-violence charge. He filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the state forensic lab seeking any DNA evidence from his case. Stacey Miranda, an assistant state’s attorney, reviewed the files to respond to Figueroa and discovered the 2009 report that excluded him as a contributor to the genetic sample obtained from the victim in the March 11 attack.

Miranda would later say in an affidavit that “I immediately recognized the exculpatory nature of this report.”

Working with Figueroa’s attorney, Miranda immediately moved to reduce Figueroa’s bond, allowing his release from jail. She then filed a motion to vacate Figueroa’s conviction and dismiss the charges related to the 1995 sexual assault. That motion was granted on August 1, 2014. She also filed subsequent motions to vacate the convictions tied to Figueroa’s probation violations.

In an affidavit, Miranda said she took these actions because they were the right and ethical things to do. She also said that she spoke with the victim in this case, telling her that the DNA evidence had excluded Figueroa. Miranda said the woman didn’t wish to be involved with any further court proceedings.

After his exoneration, Figueroa filed a claim for state compensation for his wrongful conviction. During a hearing on his claim, he testified about his decision to plead guilty, using an Alford plea.

“At the beginning I didn’t want to take that plea, because I was innocent," he said. "And [my attorney] told me if you take this to trial, you are going to be in there for a long time. I mean and I was thinking about ten years. And he said no, you’re going to be there for a long time, probably thirty or forty years…Then I asked him about the offer exactly what this means. He told me you take the knowledge about the crime that they got enough evidence to convict me, and you are going to plead guilty, but you are not taking responsibility of what happened. So you’ll be able to reopen the case and come back to court. So I say sure, I want to do that.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 2/18/2021
Last Updated: 2/18/2021
State:Connecticut
County:New Haven
Most Serious Crime:Sexual Assault
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Kidnapping
Reported Crime Date:1995
Convicted:1996
Exonerated:2014
Sentence:12 years
Race/Ethnicity:Hispanic
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:20
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*