A man who was imprisoned for 16 years for two attempted sexual assaults and a rape he did not commit was exonerated Monday, based on new DNA evidence linking the crimes to Los Angeles' notorious "Teardrop Rapist" -- who sports a similar-shaped tattoo as the innocent man.
Luis Vargas, now 46, was sentenced to 55 years in prison in 1999 for kidnapping three women and raping one of them. The father of three reportedly broke down in the LA courtroom yesterday when Superior Court Judge William Ryan issued the exoneration.
One of Vargas's lawyers, Alex Simpson, who is the Associate Director of the California Innocence Project — the group that requested the DNA tests — told VICE News that despite the exoneration, Vargas is still not a free man.
Even though Vargas is a lawful permanent resident, the conviction meant his green card status has been placed on hold, and he was transferred immediately from state prison and placed into the custody of immigration officials, Simpson said.
"We're hoping that a reversal of the conviction will help fix this," Simpson said.
Vargas was convicted based on eyewitness testimony from three Hispanic women who said they were approached by an attacker at a bus stop in the early morning hours. The rapist asked the women for directions before forcing them into an alley. Two of the women escaped unharmed, but one of them — who was 15-years-old at the time — was raped.
The witnesses recalled the rapist sporting a teardrop tattoo under his left eye, similar to a faded tattoo Vargas has in the same area on his face. At the time of his arrest, Vargas also had a prior forcible rape conviction and the two factors led police to believe Vargas was the perpetrator, Simpson said.
Vargas maintained his innocence throughout the trial. At his sentence hearing, he told the court he was "concerned [the] individual [who] really did these crimes might really be raping someone out there, might really be killing someone out there."
The Teardrop Rapist, who has been suspected of carrying out more than 30 rapes in the area since 1996, is still at large.
During the trial, the prosecution relied only on the testimony of the women and did not test the rape kits that had been taken from the women, in spite of testimony from witnesses who said Vargas was working at a bagel shop where he was employed when the attempted rapes and rape occurred.
Simpson also said that advancements in DNA testing technology allowed authorities to conduct so-called "touch DNA" testing — a method that requires only very small samples from an object that had been handed by the suspect, for instance.
The Innocence Project took on the case after Vargas wrote to them from behind bars in 2011. In late 2012, lawyers with Project requested the Los Angeles District Attorney's office to perform DNA tests on clothing. When the tests came back linking the rapes with the Teardrop Rapist, the project immediately asked for Vargas to be exonerated.
"Bad eyewitness identifications are one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions," California Innocence Project Director, Professor Justin Brooks, said in a statement. "It's amazing that Vargas will finally be released after more than 16 years of wrongful incarceration. It's time for him to get back to his family and his life. Hopefully, this new evidence will help police catch the true perpetrator."
The man's daughter, Cristal Nora Vargas, told KABC-TV, she had had always trusted in her father's innocence.
"It's a relief because I believed in my father's innocence the day he told me he was innocent. Growing up, I would cry myself to sleep," she said. "My father meant the world to me, and he still does."
Simpson said he now hopes that Vargas will soon be released back to his family, including a 10-year-old granddaughter who was born while he was in prison.