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Man wrongfully convicted in 'teardrop rapist' attacks spent years fighting for his freedom

Man wrongfully convicted in 'teardrop rapist' attacks spent years fighting for his freedom
Luis Lorenzo Vargas, 46, breaks down in tears at a court hearing Monday where a Los Angeles County judge threw out his convictions for three sexual assaults. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

From the moment he was sentenced to life in prison for three sexual assaults, Luis Lorenzo Vargas maintained that someone else had carried out the heinous crimes.

But it took more than a decade for someone to listen.

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Vargas' 16-year quest to clear his name hit one roadblock after another until the California Innocence Project took up his cause and pushed for authorities to test DNA evidence in his case.

The results led a judge this week to throw out a conviction that relied heavily on Vargas' identification by victims at police lineups. DNA evidence from his case instead pointed to another suspect in at least one of the attacks — a notorious serial assailant dubbed the "teardrop rapist," whom the Los Angeles Police Department has linked to 39 sexual assaults in the city.

Vargas' legal odyssey underscores the challenge of overturning a wrongful conviction in a criminal justice system that looks with suspicion on claims of innocence and has tried to reduce the number of frivolous appeals.

Vargas filed a series of appeals in courts throughout California from 1999 to 2002, but each one was slapped down without fanfare. Court records show that his pleas for judicial relief were sometimes shot down without review and once due to a possible mailing snafu.

"Getting a conviction overturned on appeal is a huge task because the courts want to give integrity to the decision," said Raquel Cohen, a staff attorney with the California Innocence Project who has been working on Vargas' case. "If you don't have that really strong evidence, it's really difficult. The courts tend to favor finality."

Vargas' first attempt to undo his conviction reached California's 2nd District Court of Appeals in July 1999, shortly after he was sentenced.

Vargas argued, as he would in several filings, that the police lineups that led the victims to identify him were carried out improperly, and that his right to competent counsel was violated, Cohen said.

Nearly one year later, the appeals court affirmed Vargas' conviction. Vargas next went to the state Supreme Court, but the justices denied his request for a review of his case on Aug. 30, 2000, two weeks after he filed his petition.

The court did not publish an opinion on the matter.

Two years later, Vargas filed another writ for habeas corpus in Superior Court in Los Angeles County, arguing again that a lineup that led victims to identify him was tainted by suggestions from the police. That application was denied in less than two weeks after the court said his claims had no merit, records show.

His final appeal, a writ of habeas corpus filed in federal court in 2002, was denied in 2004 after a judge determined Vargas' filing was outside the one-year window the law gave inmates to challenge their convictions in federal court.

Vargas' state conviction had been finalized on Nov. 28, 2000. According to court records, Vargas said he filed his federal writ in October 2001, which would have been within the window, but his petition may have been sent to the wrong address.

He resubmitted his petition in March 2002, but the court determined that was outside of the window.

Vargas wrote to the California Innocence Project pleading for their help. In 2011, the organization, which is based at the California Western School of Law in San Diego, decided to represent him after noticing several "post-conviction red flags" in his case, specifically the possible eyewitness misidentifications Vargas had mentioned in several of his appeals, according to the group's website.

Vargas was also aided by changes in California law that allowed people to seek additional DNA testing after their conviction. The law that first allowed people to apply for post-conviction DNA testing cleared the state Legislature in 2000, a little more than a year after Vargas was convicted.

The law was changed in 2012 so that applicants no longer had to prove before the DNA tests were done that the exams would produce a favorable result, Cohen said. In October 2013, a judge approved DNA testing for Vargas.

Advances in technology also set the stage for Vargas' conviction to be vacated, Cohen said. The types of DNA tests conducted at the time the crimes were committed focused largely on obtaining sperm samples.

In Vargas' case, a sexual assault examination on one of the victims, a 15-year-old girl, took swabs from her and the clothes she was wearing at the time. Before his trial, tests on the swabs found no sperm, and no other tests were available at the time, according to court records.

When the Innocence Project and Vargas won the right to retest the evidence in 2012, investigators were able to test for minute DNA traces, including those left by skin cells and sweat, Cohen said.

Those tests, unavailable in 1999, helped clear Vargas last year and implicate the teardrop rapist.

Even then, Vargas remained behind bars while the district attorney's office conducted what a spokeswoman called a "very careful, extensive review, because there was only DNA from one victim."

The 15-year-old girl who was raped, now a woman, told detectives last year that she still felt confident in her identification of Vargas as her attacker, according to court records. But the district attorney's office said in a letter to the court earlier this month that it believes she "honestly, but mistakenly, identified Vargas at trial as her assailant."

In the letter to Superior Court Judge William C. Ryan, Deputy Dist. Atty. Nicole Flood wrote that prosecutors no longer had "confidence in the convictions."

On Monday, the judge did what courts had repeatedly refused to do for more than a decade and set aside the case against Vargas.

Times Staff Writer Marisa Gerber contributed to this report.

Follow @JamesQueallyLAT for breaking news.

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