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Joaquin Ciria

Other San Francisco County, California exonerations
On April 18, 2022, 61-year-old Joaquin Ciria was exonerated of a murder that took place more than 30 years earlier in San Francisco, California. His conviction and sentence of 31 years to life were vacated and the case was dismissed based on a confluence of alibi evidence, the recantation of his main accuser, and the identification of the real killer.

The path to exoneration began in 2018 when a prisoner at Folsom State Prison told attorney Ellen Eggers that he strongly believed Ciria was innocent. Eggers, whose work led to the exoneration of Franky Carrillo in 2011 and would lead to the exoneration of Arturo Jimenez in 2020, agreed to meet with Ciria.

The exoneration was the first for the San Francisco County District Attorney’s Innocence Commission. The Commission, headed by attorney Lara Bazelon, re-investigated the case based on evidence uncovered by Eggers and the Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) and concluded that Ciria was innocent.

By that time, Ciria, a native of Cuba who came to the U.S. as a teenager, had been in prison for 28 years after being convicted on February 25, 1991 in San Francisco County Court. Ciria was 29 years old when he was arrested on April 19, 1990 and charged with the March 24, 1990 murder of his 30-year-old best friend, Felix “Carlos” Bastarrica.

Two years later, following Eggers’s re-investigation of the case, she and NCIP attorney Paige Kaneb brought their evidence to the Innocence Commission, a unit founded by District Attorney Chesa Boudin in 2020. Bazelon, who formerly worked as the director of the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent in Los Angeles, read the letter, and an investigation of the case commenced.

The crime occurred at about 9 p.m. in Clara Alley, a street that ran behind the Bay Bridge Motel in the South-of-Market neighborhood of San Francisco. A witness said Bastarrica was shot in the head. Afterward, the gunman got into a white Monte Carlo which sped away.

Police Inspectors Art Gerrans and James Crowley spoke to eyewitnesses Kenneth Duff and Kathleen Guevara, who said they saw the shooting. Duff was in a car, and Guevara was in her apartment, which overlooked the alley. Both said the shooter was wearing a long, dark overcoat and that he had an “afro-type haircut.” They also said the shooter and Bastarrica argued loudly in a foreign language.

On March 28, 1990, Guevara viewed a lineup of six photographs of Black men. Police asked her “to see which one looked closest to the murderer.” Guevara selected Ciria’s photograph as looking “most like the suspect, especially the profile or maybe more the attitude.” Duff did not make a positive identification from the photographic lineup.

Gerrans and Crowley also spoke to Edward Lavalle, a friend of Bastarrica, who was one of the last people to see him alive. Lavalle told inspectors that he received a phone call from another friend, Roberto Socorro, the day after the shooting. Socorro told Lavalle that the white vehicle being sought in connection with the shooting belonged to 18-year-old George Varela, the son of an ex-girlfriend of Ciria.

By that time, rumors had begun circulating that Ciria was responsible for the shooting. On April 13, 1990, Ciria and an attorney went to the police to answer their questions. Ciria said that on the night of the crime, he had been with 18-year-old George Varela. Ciria said they met around 7 p.m. and played video games at an arcade on Market Street. They left about 7:30 p.m., and, on the drive to Ciria’s home, they stopped at Galan’s Bar in the Mission district because Ciria wanted to see a friend. After just 10 minutes, Ciria left. On his way out, Ciria saw an old nemesis, Roberto Hernandez, and they got into a fist fight just outside the door. The two were separated, and Ciria got back into Varela’s car, a white Monte Carlo. Ciria said he was home by 8:25 p.m. and spent the rest of the night there with his common law wife, Yojana Paiz, their infant son, and their housemate, Marina Flores.

Ciria provided police with Varela’s name, a description of the Monte Carlo, and information on where Varela could be found. At the end of the interview, Ciria denied shooting Bastarrica. He offered to take a polygraph examination, but his lawyer advised against it.

A few days later, police picked up Varela, who had numerous run-ins with police as a juvenile. Varela first said he was not present at the murder, but then said he had been driving the Monte Carlo on the day of the shooting. He said he had been with Ciria earlier in the evening of the day of the shooting. Twice he told the inspectors that he could tell them about the “length of time” he and Ciria were together that evening and the time that he and Ciria “split up.” Varela said that, after dropping off Ciria, he went home and stayed home, but then immediately admitted, “I probably went somewhere.”

The inspectors told Varela they “knew” that Ciria had shot and killed Bastarrica, and “knew” that Ciria had arrived and fled the scene in Varela’s white Monte Carlo. They told Varela he could be charged with murder and that Varela would be in “deep shit” if he continued to “lie and cover up for [Ciria].” They said they “knew” Varela “didn’t do it,” and suggested that he might not have even known it was going to happen. Varela agreed with their suggestion that he had not known the shooting was going to happen and added, “Hey, whatever you said.”

As the inspectors applied more pressure, Varela said, “Okay, just like you said,” and then described the shooting without using any names. Later in the interview, he agreed that Ciria was the shooter.

Varela said that before Bastarrica was shot, he shouted out Ciria’s name, “Joaquin! Joaquin! Joaquin!” as if he were pleading with Ciria.

According to Varela, Ciria was avenging the shooting death of another friend that occurred days earlier.

Varela’s statement was a lie, coerced by police threats to charge him with the murder unless he implicated Ciria. And, although the interview was recorded, the portions when the inspectors threatened to charge Varela were never aired at Ciria’s trial.

Two days later, police interviewed Marina Flores and Yojana Paiz. Although the interviews were conducted in English and both women only spoke Spanish, the women managed to convey that they recalled the night in question and remembered that Varela picked up Ciria at 7 p.m. and brought him home around 8 p.m. They also remembered that Ciria had been in a fight at the bar.

On April 19, Ciria was arrested. He was charged with first-degree murder and a firearm enhancement was added.

On April 26, 1990, police placed Ciria in a live lineup attended by eyewitness Guevara. Guevara wrote “possibly” under Ciria’s position in the lineup because she “knew [she] had seen him in the photographs… but [she] also knew that he was the murderer.” Thereafter, eyewitness Duff was shown photographs of the live lineup. He identified Ciria as “look[ing] like the shooter.”

In February 1991, Ciria went to trial in San Francisco County Superior Court. Varela testified, but only after he said he would refuse to testify and then was granted full immunity from prosecution.

Varela was repeatedly arrested in the months leading up to Ciria’s trial, but avoided serious incarceration time. In June 1990, he was cited for-being drunk in public, but, although he had a five-year suspended sentence for a previous conviction hanging over him, he never went to court. The case, he said, "disappeared." On August 31, 1990, Varela had been charged with felony possession of crack cocaine for sale, and, although the charge was still pending at the time of Ciria’s trial, Varela was free on bond. On September 25, 1990, Varela had been arrested again for possession of crack cocaine for sale, but that case was dismissed. On September 29, 1990, Varela was arrested at 3:30 a.m. in his car. Another person in the car was carrying a loaded shotgun. Varela had a derringer in the trunk. As a consequence, Varela had been charged with various misdemeanors and got probation and a six-month suspended sentence. Not even a month later, on October 23, 1990, Varela had been arrested for possession of a stolen vehicle. On November 8, 1990, Varela had been arrested again for possession of crack cocaine, and also cited for driving without a license.

Varela admitted that on August 27, 1990, he signed an agreement promising to appear in court on August 31, 1990, but he did not show up. He admitted that although the penalty for failing to appear included up to a year in prison and fine of up to $5,000, he suffered no consequences. He signed another agreement to appear in November and again failed to appear. And again, suffered no penalties. When he agreed to work 20 days in the San Francisco County Sheriff’s alternative work program as a condition of his probation, he again failed to show. And there were no adverse consequences.

Varela said on the night of the crime, after leaving Galan’s Bar, Ciria directed him to Clara alley. Varela said they saw Bastarrica carrying a plastic bag. Varela said Ciria got out and, after arguing with Bastarrica, shot him three times.

Varela admitted that at the time, Ciria wore his hair in Jeri curls and that his hair was greasy from the chemicals used to create the hairstyle.

Varela testified that the day after the shooting, Ciria came to Varela’s home. He wanted a ride to Candlestick Park to get rid of the murder weapon. Varela said the gun was burned and missing the cylinder. He claimed Ciria told him he had been trying to burn off his fingerprints.

Varela said Ciria went to the end of the pier and tossed it into the bay.

Varela admitted he had not told police about the disposal of the pistol in his initial interview. He admitted that in his March 1990 interview, he said he did not know what happened to the weapon. On May 30, 1990, Varela had returned to the police station and recounted the trip to the pier.

The prosecution presented evidence that on July 10, 1990, the San Francisco police diving unit searched the bay near the pier and found a gun with a missing cylinder. A criminalist testified that the bullets retrieved from Bastarrica’s body could have come from the type of gun found in the bay, but he could not say that the bullets came from that particular gun. The criminalist, Terry Coddington, said that there was no evidence of burning or melting on the gun. He also said that burning with a match or a candle or a gas range would not produce damage that would survive submersion in saltwater and mud.

Varela also testified that he was relocated from his sister's house, where he had been staying, to a hotel near the Pacific Ocean, and then to Daly City. The prosecution paid for the moves. Asked if he was an honest person, Varela replied, "Everyone lies, everyone tells the truth."

Duff and Guevara testified, but both were problematic. Their identifications were cross-ethnic, which have frequently been shown to be wrong.

Duff, who is white, testified that he was 60 to 100 feet away from the shooting, sitting in a car. He said he saw a white Monte Carlo pull up, and both the driver and passenger got out. Right after the shooting, he said the shooter turned around and pointed a gun at Duff and his companion. He said the light was behind the gunman, and he saw the gunman’s face for a split second. Even so, he identified Ciria as the gunman. It was the first time he positively identified Ciria, who was sitting at the defense table wearing a red jail jumpsuit.

Notably, Duff never heard anyone shout “Joaquin! Joaquin! Joaquin!” When first interviewed by police, he said he was 30 feet away. At the preliminary hearing, he said he was 15 feet away. The distance when measured from where he estimated his car was parked was actually from 60 to 100 feet away.

Duff said the shooter had an Afro hairdo (similar to Ciria’s hair at trial). Duff said the gunman was wearing a green “London Fog” type of trench coat. When first questioned by police, he said he thought the gunman was “Hindu.” On April 5, 1990, Duff viewed a photographic lineup containing Ciria’s photograph. Duff was unable to identify anyone as the gunman. A live lineup was held later that included Ciria. Duff was shown a photograph of that lineup. He identified Ciria at that time, but said Ciria was someone who “looks like” the gunman.

Guevara, who is of Asian descent, testified she was with her young daughter in a second story apartment overlooking the alley. She heard shouting and looked out to see two men yelling at each other and pacing up and down the alley. One man—who she identified in the courtroom as Ciria—would walk toward a white car and the other man would follow. When the gunman turned around, the other man backed up, Guevara said. Like Duff, she never heard anyone shout “Joaquin! Joaquin! Joaquin!”

Guevara said she saw the gunman in silhouette. She said the best view she had was of his profile and his back. Like Duff, she said the gunman was wearing an overcoat. Guevara said the gunman had an Afro and that both men spoke a foreign language, perhaps “African.” She thought the gunman was in his 40s.

Guevara had made her first positive identification of Ciria at a preliminary hearing when he was at the defense table in a red jail jumpsuit. She told the jury that she became positive of her identification after seeing Ciria in court because she was able to see “his attitude or his persona, so to speak.” By attitude, she meant “sort of cocky or arrogant.”

Mercedes Mora testified that Ciria and Bastarrica had been friends. Mora said that she loved Ciria, but was angry at him because he was living with another woman. So, she made up a story. She said she told Ciria that the night before the shooting, she had been at Bastarrica’s home when Roberto Socorro came in and reported that he had killed Ruben Alfonso. Mora told police that Alfonso, Bastarrica, Socorro, and Ciria had a falling out over drugs and money. She admitted she falsely told police that after she told Ciria that story, he asked for Bastarrica’s address and she gave it to him.

The tape recording of Varela’s interview in March was played for the jury, but only selected portions. None of the inspectors’ threats to charge Varela with the murder were aired. Nor were the segments where they said they knew Ciria was the gunman and that Varela should stop lying and covering for him or he’d be in “deep shit.”

The defense presented Robert Hernandez, who testified that he got into a fight with Ciria at Galan’s bar on the day of the shooting. Hernandez said it occurred between 7:30 and 8:10 p.m. He recalled that Ciria’s hair “filled my jacket with grease when we fought.” Like Varela, Hernandez said that Ciria’s hair was in a greased down Jeri curl, not an afro. Hernandez also testified that Ciria was wearing a short black and red jacket with the word “COMMANDO” in white lettering on the back—not a long dark trench coat.

Antonio Arenal testified that he and Bastarrica were present when Socorro fatally shot Alfonso the night before Bastarrica was killed. Arenal said that Bastarrica was talking to Alfonso when Socorro came up and told Bastarrica to get out of the way. Bastarrica begged Socorro not to shoot Alfonso, but Socorro shot him anyway. Arenal said he and Bastarrica then were picked up by Edward Lavalle and they went to buy crack cocaine.

Years later, Ciria’s defense attorney, Randy Montessano, conceded that it was a mistake not to call Ciria’s alibi witnesses or to play for the jury the portions of the profanity-laden coercive interrogations of Varela, during which the police threatened to charge him with the murder unless he implicated Ciria.

On February 25, 1991, the jury convicted Ciria of first-degree murder and found the gun enhancement to be true. Ciria was sentenced to 31 years to life in prison.

The California Appellate Court upheld his conviction in 1992. For the next quarter of a century, Ciria, acting without a lawyer, filed numerous petitions for writs of habeas corpus in state and federal court. All of the petitions were denied.

In 2018, after Eggers met with Ciria for the first time, at Ciria’s urging, she met with the older sister of Varela, Denise Corretjer, who lived in San Francisco. Corretjer said that Varela had admitted to her that Ciria was innocent and that Bastarrica had been killed by a different Cuban man.

Christopher Johnson, who was living with Corretjer at the time, recalled in a declaration that in March 1990, at the time of the shooting, he came home and discovered Varela holding a .44-caliber pistol. Johnson said Varela told him the gun was “hot,” meaning it had been used in a crime. Johnson said he told Varela to get it out of the house. He watched as Varela took the cylinder out and put it and the rest of the gun in a plastic bag. Varela left, and, when he returned, he told Johnson that he was going to toss it off the pier at Candlestick Park, but could not because a police training exercise was being held there. Johnson said Varela told him he would get rid of it that night.

Eggers tracked down Socorro, who revealed that the real killer was Candido Diaz. Socorro said that Edward Lavalle had rented him room 7 at the Bay Bridge Motel because Socorro was hiding out after shooting Alfonso. Socorro said that Bastarrica was bringing clothing to him at the motel when Diaz shot him. Socorro said he saw the shooting from his motel room window. (Socorro had later been convicted of the murder of Alfonso.)

Convinced that Ciria was innocent, Eggers partnered with NCIP and Kane to continue digging. They learned that Diaz’s nickname in the Cuban community was “Peter” or “Petey.” Eggers recalled that among the hundreds of pages of police reports and interviews was an April 24, 1990 interview with Dana Goode, who had been a girlfriend of Ciria’s at the time. Goode had told police that she had heard about Bastarrica’s death from “Peter,” a Black Cuban man who told her that Bastarrica had been shot in the head. No other witness had mentioned that fact, although police knew that the autopsy showed that was the case. Goode did not know Peter’s last name, but said he drove a green Datsun 280Z.

During Eggers’s next interview with Socorro, she asked him to relate everything he remembered about Diaz. Socorro said that Diaz wore his hair in an Afro, frequently wore long leather jackets that went past his knees, had a white girlfriend named Saida who dyed her hair pink and blue, and that he drove a “Datsun dark green Z-80, or something like that.”

In July 2020, Eggers located and interviewed Goode, who spontaneously said that Ciria was innocent. Goode said she had always suspected Peter, because Peter hated both Ciria and Bastarrica. Goode said that Peter wore his hair in an afro, drove a green 280Z, wore long trench coats and had a white girlfriend with different-colored hair.

Ultimately, Eggers and Kaneb concluded that Diaz was the real gunman. They discovered that immediately after the shooting, Diaz had been blaming the murder on Ciria during conversations on the street. At the time that Ciria was interviewed by police, he told them that Diaz was spreading the rumor that Ciria was the gunman, but Ciria never suspected that Diaz was actually the gunman.

Eggers located Ciria’s two alibi witnesses, and both confirmed that he was with them at the time of the crime. Yojana Paiz confirmed that Ciria was wearing a short black and red leather jacket with the words “Commando Squad” on the back. She said he never owned a trench coat. Marina Flores, the housemate of Paiz and Ciria at the time of the crime, recalled that Paiz and Ciria had quarreled that night because Paiz wanted Ciria to stay with her and her new baby instead of going out with Varela. She recalled they were surprised when he came home early and remained there the rest of the night. Flores also remembered he was upset about getting into a fight with Hernandez.

Eggers and Kaneb prepared a draft of a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus and submitted it to the Innocence Commission in 2020. The petition outlined the evidence gathered to support Ciria’s innocence claim. It included a declaration from Caridad Gonzalez, with whom Varela had lived when he was a child and whom he would visit occasionally. Gonzalez recalled a day years after Ciria was convicted when Varela was visiting her and Ciria happened to call her. When Varela realized Ciria was on the phone, he asked to speak to him, but Ciria refused, Gonzalez recalled. After the call, Varela told Gonzalez that Ciria was innocent.

Gonzalez’s account was confirmed by Corretjer, who said that later that same day, Varela told Corretjer of being at Gonzalez’s apartment and being disappointed when Ciria refused to speak to him. Varela told Corretjer, “Joaquin didn’t do this. He’s innocent.” Corretjer recalled that Varela told her that the police were focused on Ciria and coerced him to implicate Ciria. “It was another Cuban,” Varela told her.

In November 2020, the Innocence Commission, a panel of experts appointed by District Attorney Chesa Boudin to investigate wrongful convictions, met and agreed to review Ciria’s case. In December, the Commission interviewed Socorro from Cuba where he was residing. Varela, who was incarcerated on unrelated charges, declined to be interviewed. The Commission also interviewed other witnesses, consulted with an expert in eyewitness identification, and reviewed the police and prosecution files of the case as well as the trial record.

In January 2021, Eggers and Kaneb filed the 244-page (including exhibits) petition for a writ of habeas corpus. “Joaquin Ciria was wrongfully convicted,” the petition declared. “He received ineffective assistance of counsel, he was convicted based on false testimony, and new evidence shows that he is innocent. He has already spent more than 30 years wrongfully-incarcerated. This Court should issue an order to show cause and then grant Mr. Ciria' s petition for a writ of habeas corpus.”

In March 2021, the San Francisco County Superior Court ordered the prosecution to respond to the petition. In April 2021, the Innocence Commission voted unanimously to recommend to District Attorney Boudin that Ciria’s conviction should be vacated.

Following Boudin’s independent review of the Commission’s findings, the District Attorney’s Office filed a concession in Ciria’s case, agreeing that the new evidence undermined the prosecution’s case and that Ciria was innocent. The concession was filed on October 1, 2021 by Assistant District Attorney Arcelia Hurtado, a member of the Innocence Commission. The response said that the witnesses supporting Ciria were credible and Varela was no longer considered credible. In addition, an eyewitness expert retained by the commission said that the identifications by Duff and Guevara—though they were sincere—were problematic and questionable. The lighting was poor, they were at a distance, and a gun was pointed at Duff. In addition, their descriptions of the gunman—Afro hairdo and a trench coat—clashed with Ciria’s appearance that night—Jeri curls and a short red and black jacket with “COMMANDO” across the back.

The evidence “points unerringly” to Ciria’s innocence, the response said.

On April 18, 2022, Superior Court Judge Brendan Conroy vacated Ciria’s conviction. The prosecution dismissed the case, and Ciria was ordered released.

In September 2022, Ciria received $1,636,600 from California's Victim Compensation Board. On November 29, 2022, Ciria filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against the San Francisco Police Department, seeking compensation for his wrongful conviction. In June 2023, Ciria's son and the mother of their son filed a separate federal lawsuit seeking damages.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 4/26/2022
Last Updated: 6/8/2023
County:San Francisco
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1990
Sentence:31 to life
Age at the date of reported crime:29
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No