By Olga Grigoryants and Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A Los Angeles judge on Monday overturned the conviction of a man who spent 16 years in prison for sexual assault and other charges, after new DNA evidence cleared him of the crimes and linked them to the notorious "Teardrop Rapist."
A weeping Luis Vargas, 46, was ordered released from state prison following the hearing in Los Angeles Superior Court, but will be transferred to federal custody while U.S. authorities investigate his immigration status.
"I’m happy but I’m sad that I can’t take him home. I believed my father is innocent since the day he told me he was innocent," his daughter, Crystal Vargas, said outside court. She was 10 when her father was convicted in 1999 and sentenced to 55 years to life in prison.
Superior Court Judge William Ryan threw out Vargas' conviction based on DNA evidence taken from the shorts and underwear of one of three victims in the string of attacks, which was found to exclude him as the perpetrator.
The analysis was conducted at the request of the California Innocence Project, which said Vargas was found guilty based on erroneous testimony by witnesses because he had a similar tattoo to the Teardrop Rapist - a teardrop falling from the left eye.
"Bad eyewitness identifications are one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions," Justin Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project, said in a statement. "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."
Prosecutors joined attorneys for Vargas in asking that Ryan reverse the guilty verdicts, saying that less sophisticated DNA testing available in 1999 would not have been able to exonerate him.
In the three attacks blamed on Vargas, two Latina women and a girl were attacked at bus stops in Los Angeles between Feb. 3 and June 6, 1998, assaults that authorities concluded were carried out by the same man with at least one teardrop tattoo below his eye.
Two of the victims escaped from their assailant, but the 15-year-old girl could not and was raped.
Vargas, who had a prior conviction for forcible rape at the time of his arrest in the case, was identified by all three victims as their assailant.
He was convicted on June 15, 1999, despite the testimony of defense witnesses who said he was at work at a bagel shop at the time the crimes were committed.
The still unidentified Teardrop Rapist, linked to some three dozen sexual assaults across Southern California from 1996 to 2012, remains on the FBI's most-wanted list.
An attorney for Vargas said it was not clear how long his client, who holds a green card conferring him permanent resident status, would be detained over immigration issues.
(Reporting by Olga Grigoryants and Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by David Gregorio and Peter Cooney)