Man convicted of 3 sex assaults cleared by L.A

Luis Vargas, who has been in prison for 16 years, breaks down in court as he is exonerated Monday, Nov. 23, 2015, in Los Angeles. A judge exonerated Vargas, convicted of three rapes, after DNA evidence linked the crimes to a serial rapist wanted for assaults dating back two decades.

A man imprisoned 16 years for rape and sex assault convictions was exonerated Monday and ordered freed after DNA evidence linked the crimes to a serial rapist on the FBI’s most wanted list.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Ryan granted a petition supported by prosecutors to release Luis Vargas, who was serving a sentence of 55 years to life in prison for three sexual assaults.

Vargas broke down, placing his hand to his forehead and covering his eyes as the judge ordered the case dismissed during the brief hearing packed with family and law school students who had worked to free him.

DNA tests found that the crimes Vargas was convicted of were actually committed by the so-called Teardrop Rapist, who is known for a tattoo of a teardrop under his eye, said Chris Saunders, a spokesman for the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law, which took up Vargas’ case in 2012.

Witnesses linked Vargas to the crime because he had a similar tattoo.

The Teardrop Rapist is on the FBI’s most wanted list. He is linked by DNA to 11 crimes and is suspected of 35 in total across the Los Angeles area, the Innocence Project said.

On the day of his sentencing in 1999, Vargas told the court, “I’m concerned (the) individual (who) really did these crimes might really be raping someone out there, might really be killing someone out there.”

Vargas was serving a term of 55 years to life in prison when he contacted the innocence project at California Western School of Law in 2012 and said he thought he was wrongly convicted of crimes that were the work of the so-called Teardrop Rapist.

The notorious predator known for a tattoo of a teardrop under his eye has been linked by DNA to 11 crimes and is suspected of 35 across the Los Angeles area, the innocence project said.

Vargas has a similar tattoo and he was accused of crimes that fit the same pattern — attacks on girls and women walking to school her work in the early morning.

Vargas was convicted of kidnapping, forcibly raping and sodomizing one woman and attempting to rape two others between February and June 1998.

DNA testing methods were not as sensitive at the time of the trial and the convictions hinged on positive identifications by the three victims.

Prosecutors said the three assaults were so similar, they were “signature crimes” that could only be committed by the same person. The women all corroborated each other by pointing to Vargas, who had a previous rape conviction.

The judge noted that their initial identifications, however, were tentative and inconsistent in describing their assailant.

“This was a shaky witness identification case,” said attorney Alex Simpson, of the California Innocence Project. “It is the No. 1 factor in wrongful convictions across the country.”

Jurors disregarded Vargas’ alibi witnesses, including the manager of a bagel shop, who said he was working there the mornings of the attacks.

With advances in DNA technology, his lawyers were able in show that genetic evidence from the forcible rape was linked to the Teardrop Rapist and not Vargas.

Prosecutors said the three assaults were so similar, they were “signature crimes” that could only be committed by the same person. The women all corroborated each other by pointing to Vargas, who had a previous rape conviction.

The judge noted that their initial identifications, however, were tentative and inconsistent in describing their assailant.

“This was a shaky witness identification case,” said attorney Alex Simpson, of the California Innocence Project. “This happens all the time. It is the No. 1 factor in wrongful convictions across the country.”

Jurors disregarded Vargas’ alibi witnesses, including the manager of a bagel shop, who said he was working there the mornings of the attacks.

With improved technology, his lawyers were able in show that genetic evidence from the forcible rape was linked to the Teardrop Rapist and not Vargas.

Prosecutors conceded it was a case of mistaken identity and that new evidence pointed “unerringly to innocence,” Deputy District Attorney Nicole Flood said in a letter to the judge.

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