LOS ANGELES (AP) — 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.
Vargas, 46, who was taken back into custody because of immigration issues, told his lawyers to tell his family not to worry and that he would be home soon.
"He is really positive, he is just an uplifting person," said attorney Raquel Cohen of the California Innocence Project. "I think he's let go of any bitterness and he's just happy to move forward and be reunited with this family, hopefully for Christmas."
His lawyers expect he'll be released by immigration authorities because he was a legal resident at the time of arrest and the matter is connected to a conviction that has now been reversed.
Lawyers and students for the innocence project at California Western School of Law took up the case after Vargas got in touch 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 in total across the Los Angeles area, the innocence project said. Vargas has a similar tattoo.
Vargas had insisted on his innocence all along, telling the court at his 1999 sentencing that he was concerned the individual who "really did these crimes might really be raping someone out there, might really be killing someone out there."
In cases dating back to 1996, the Teardrop Rapist approached girls or women in the early morning walking to school or work, pulled a weapon such as a gun or knife, forced them to a secluded area and sexually assaulted them, officials have said.
Police in 2012 released several sketches of the suspect they described as a light-skinned Hispanic man between 40 and 55 years old.
His most striking characteristic is the tattoo some victims have reported seeing on his face, though there are conflicting reports about which eye it is under or whether there is more than one tear.
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. "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.
Vargas' daughter, who was 10 when he was taken away, said it was hard growing up without a father and she often cried herself to sleep, but she never quit believing in him.
Crystal Nunez-Vargas, who clenched her 7-year-old daughter's hand, said she had missed out on having him there for the father-daughter dances at Latina coming-of-age parties, graduations and his granddaughter's birth. She got legally married, but she put the ceremony on hold for one of those important parts.
"I'm waiting for him to come home so I can do my big church wedding and be able to have him walk me down the aisle, which is every little girl's dream," she said. "I can't wait for that."