After serving 16 years in prison, a Los Angeles man's conviction for rape was overturned thanks to new DNA testing methods.
Luis Lorenzo Vargas maintained his innocence, and in 1999 he warned a judge and prosecutors they had the wrong man.
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“You can sentence me to all the years you want,” Vargas said, according to the Los Angeles Times, “but as far as I’m concerned ... that individual that really did these crimes might really be raping someone out there.”
Good news came on Nov. 23 when a Los Angeles County judge tossed Vargas' conviction and the 55-years-to-life prison sentence that went with it. The bad news was the same DNA evidence that cleared Vargas now points to an infamous criminal, known as the "teardrop rapist," a man responsible for at least 39 sexual assaults since 1995, the Los Angeles Times noted.
Although detectives and prosecutors knew about the teardrop rapist in 1999, they focused on Vargas after the victims of three sexual assaults tentatively identified him as the suspect. Vargas was working in a bagel shop at the time and coworkers testified on his behalf, but the alibi didn't hold up in court, and the victims became more certain as prosecutors prepared them for the trial.
Although the original case hinged on witness identification, after the new DNA test exonerated Vargas, prosecutors admitted there had been inconsistencies in the testimonies and descriptions of the victims.
"This was a shaky witness identification case," attorney Alex Simpson of the California Innocence Project told the Los Angeles Times. "This happens all the time. It is the No. 1 factor in wrongful convictions across the country."
Vargas benefited from advanced DNA forensics that didn't exist in 1999 — and which conclusively ruled him out as the rapist 16 years later — as well as the work of the Innocence Project, which took up his cause after he wrote to the organization. Nationally, the Innocence Project has helped exonerate 1,702 people, including 156 inmates on death row, according to the group's records.
In the meantime, the real teardrop rapist remains at large, Los Angeles Police Capt. William Hayes told the Los Angeles Times. The last rape linked to him was committed in 2013, but police said they think he's still alive, and said he's gone quiet for stretches of time before.
“Is he dormant or has he changed his methods and become more careful about forensics?” Hayes said. “We don’t know.”