LOS ANGELES » A Los Angeles County judge Monday threw out the conviction of a man who has spent 16 years behind bars for three sexual assaults his attorneys say were committed by a serial rapist still on the loose.
DNA tests last year on evidence from one of the attacks excluded Luis Lorenzo Vargas, 46, as a suspect and pointed instead to an unidentified man who has been dubbed the “teardrop rapist” wanted in dozens of sexual assaults, the attorneys said.
The California Innocence Project at the California Western School of Law in San Diego noted in court documents that prosecutors argued at trial that the same suspect must have committed all of the attacks linked to Vargas.
“The evidence now shows the prosecution’s case against him was demonstrably false,” the innocence project’s lawyers wrote, saying it “points unerringly to Vargas’ innocence.”
The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office joined the attorneys to ask Superior Court Judge William C. Ryan to release Vargas, saying the office “no longer has confidence in the convictions.”
At a hearing Monday afternoon, Vargas appeared in a downtown courtroom handcuffed and dressed in blue jail scrubs. Among his supporters in attendance were his daughter and his mother, who dabbed tears from their eyes as the judge ordered Vargas’ case set aside.
Though Vargas was ordered released, he will be placed in federal custody because of an immigration hold, authorities said.
At his trial, three victims identified Vargas — who had previously served time for forcibly raping a girlfriend — as the man who attacked them. One, a 15-year-old girl, was raped. In the other two cases, Vargas was accused of attacking the victims with the intent of raping them.
Jurors found him guilty even though several co-workers testified that Vargas had been miles away at work when the attacks occurred.
At his sentencing in 1999, Vargas pleaded with a judge, saying he was concerned the real rapist would keep attacking.
“That individual that really did these crimes,” Vargas said, according to court documents, “might really be raping someone out there.”
He was sentenced to 55 years to life in prison.
Vargas’ case again highlights the importance of DNA evidence in the criminal justice system as well as the questionable reliability of eyewitness identification. It also added a new wrinkle to a hunt that has long haunted Los Angeles law enforcement.
The “teardrop rapist” has been linked to 35 sexual assaults in the L.A. area spanning more than 15 years.
This year, Los Angeles police detectives posted a plea on Facebook asking the community for help finding the man.
“The attacker is still out there,” the post reads. “We have no fresh leads.”
Vargas filed appeal after appeal and unsuccessfully petitioned the state Supreme Court to look at his case. In December 2012, he filed a request to examine DNA collected from the jean shorts and underwear of one of the victims he was convicted of attacking, according to court documents.
The tests found genetic material from at least two people, including a male, according to court papers filed by Vargas’ lawyers. Vargas was excluded as a potential contributor.
No DNA evidence was collected from the other sexual assaults attributed to Vargas, but prosecutors had argued at his trial that there were so many similarities among the three cases that they had to have been committed by the same person. All three victims were Latina teenagers or young women targeted near bus stops in South L.A. who said a man had used a knife during the attack.
While Vargas’ DNA came back as a nonmatch, a lab compared DNA from a victim’s shorts to a DNA profile of the “teardrop rapist.” The man’s DNA, the lab ruled, couldn’t be excluded. Michael Semanchik of the California Innocence Project described the match as “very, very close.”
Many of the rapist’s victims were attacked within about three miles of the sexual assaults Vargas was convicted of committing, his lawyers said.
In a recent letter to the court, the district attorney’s office said the sophisticated technology used to exclude Vargas’ DNA did not exist back in the late 1990s.
The office said the victims who positively identified him at trial hadn’t been as certain of their identifications during earlier lineups. And prosecutors also noted a discrepancy in the victims’ descriptions: Two victims said their attacker had two teardrops tattooed beneath his left eye. Vargas has only one teardrop tattooed below his left eye, they said.
The girl who was raped, now a woman, stood by her identification of Vargas when she was recently interviewed by investigators. Prosecutors said they believe she “honestly, but mistakenly identified Vargas at trial as her assailant.”
(Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.)