A Northern California man convicted in a 2002 drive-by shooting that left a man paralyzed has been exonerated and freed after 17 years in prison, his attorney said Thursday.
Lionel Rubalcava, 40, who had been serving his sentence at Pleasant Valley State Prison, became a free man Wednesday when a Santa Clara County judge dismissed charges against him as about 20 of his family members erupted in shouts of joy.
Rubalcava said he wouldn’t have been able to handle the past 17 years if it hadn’t been for his family’s support and help from a legal team with the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University School of Law.
“Them, and the fact that I knew I was innocent, that kept me going, hoping the evidence at some point would prove that,” he told the Mercury News in San Jose.
Rubalcava was convicted in the drive-by shooting in San Jose even though shortly after it happened he was on a date in Hollister, 46 miles away.
He offered cellphone tracking evidence and testimony from the woman who accompanied him to the movies in Hollister, his attorney Paige Kaneb, of the Innocence Project, told The Associated Press.
Rubalcava became a suspect two days after the shooting when he was driving on the street where the shooting occurred and stopped to talk to a friend who lived near the targeted home.
A neighbor called police after seeing Rubalcava pull up to the wrong side of the street just as the shooter had done.
After eyewitnesses picked him out of a phone lineup, he was arrested and charged in the shooting, Kaneb said.
“The jury heard about his alibi and how it was almost impossible for him to have committed the crime. But they also heard the eyewitnesses were positive and certain Lionel had shot him, and that’s why he was convicted,” Kaneb said.
There was no physical evidence tying him to the shooting, as well as no motive.
The prosecution relied on identification by the victim, which was presented to the jury as unequivocal even though the man had told multiple people, including his mother and a detective, that he did not think Rubalcava was the shooter, Kaneb said.
Kaneb said the Santa Clara County district attorney’s office was helpful to Rubalcava’s new legal team from the time they took the case five years ago. They opened a new investigation and re-interviewed the victim, who told prosecutors he had never been confident about his identification of Rubalcava and admitted he only caught a glimpse of the shooter’s face.
On Wednesday, Assistant Dist. Atty. David Angel expressed “profound regret” over Rubalcava’s case on behalf of his office and apologized to him and his family, who had to sell their home to pay for attorneys and to travel to visit him at different prisons, Kaneb said.
“It was a beautiful thing to see,” Kaneb said. “They recognized there were two tragedies — the victim who was shot and paralyzed and Lionel, who lost 17 years of his life,” she said.
After Rubalcava was released Wednesday, he, his family and legal team went to dinner, and he had a steak and shrimp meal surrounded by the people he loves, Kaneb said.
“Lionel had a huge grin on his face, and his mother looked so relaxed and happy — and that’s worth everything,” she said.