DNA tests clear wrongfully convicted man after 16-year imprisonment

Luis Lorenzo Vargas appears in court during a hearing for his possible release in Los Angeles, California November 23, 2015. © Francine Orr
A wrongfully convicted man was exonerated after serving 16 years behind bars on rape and sexual assault charges. DNA results not only conclusively showed Luis Vargas to be innocent, but also that a notorious rapist is still on the loose.

The California Innocence Project at the San Diego-based California Western School of Law knew Luis Vargas, 46, was innocent of raping a 15-year-old girl and sexually assaulting two other women – not despite eyewitness testimony, but because of it.

“Bad eyewitness identifications are one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions,” Professor Justin Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project, said in a statement.

The Project requested DNA testing be done on evidence held by the Los Angeles District Attorney in late 2012, and the results left no doubt. Not only was a habeas corpus motion filed to exonerate Vargas’ conviction, but the DNA linked the three women’s cases to the “Teardrop Rapist,” an unknown man wanted for 39 sexual crimes in LA since 1996.

"It's a relief, because I believed that my father was innocent the day he told me he was innocent," Cristal Vargas, Luis’ daughter, said in front of the courthouse.

Vargas would have been in jail another 39 years to finish his 55-year sentence if not for the DNA tests, which were much less widely available in 1999 when he was wrongfully convicted. Vargas was, however, correctly convicted in 1992 for raping a girlfriend after driving home drunk.

In a letter reaching out to The Innocence Project, Vargas explained that his tattoo of a single tear, in addition to being a middle-aged, small-built Hispanic man, contributed to him being confused for the “Teardrop Rapist” described by the victims. The Project later learned the three crimes he had been convicted for all took place within 1.6 miles of 30 “Teardrop Rapist” crimes.