Man freed after 32 Years in prison, wrongful conviction of murder
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — After spending over three decades of his life behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit, Joaquin Ciria was set free Wednesday afternoon, two days after being exonerated earlier this week.
A small group of supporters and local media were gathered outside of the San Francisco County Jail Wednesday afternoon, waiting for his release when he walked out at around 1 p.m.
Ciria was officially exonerated of the 1990 shooting death of Felix Bastarrica in San Francisco Superior Court on Monday after 32 years in prison. He has been held in the San Francisco jail while his paperwork is being processed.
Ciria spent more than half his life in prison, and was arrested in 1990 for the shooting death of Felix Bastarrica in San Francisco’s SoMa District. His exoneration comes 32 years to the day after he was arrested for the crime.
Bastarrica was actually killed by a mutual acquaintance of the two men, but Ciria was convicted after the actual killer began rumors that Ciria was the shooter. According to the Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP), police relied on the rumors to target Ciria and coerced another man who drove the actual shooter to the crime to falsely name Ciria as the gunman.
Although the driver, George Varela, told police that Ciria was innocent, police told the Varela he could either implicate Ciria or be charged with the murder, the NCIP said.
Based primarily on Varela’s perjured testimony, Ciria was found guilty and sentenced to 31 years to life. Ciria never confessed to the crime and always maintained he was innocent.
Among the new evidence of Ciria’s innocence presented by the NCIP was testimony by Varela’s sister and family friend who both said Varela had admitted to them that Ciria was innocent. In addition, an eyewitness imprisoned for an unrelated crime came forward in 2020 to say he saw another man, Candido Diaz, argue with Bastirraca at the scene before gunshots rang out.
That eyewitness said Diaz got into Varela’s car and fled the scene of the murder. Thirty years later, after the eyewitness was released from prison, he finally came forward to reveal for the first time that Diaz had killed Bastarrica, begging Ciria’s family for forgiveness for letting their loved one stay in prison for decades for a crime he didn’t commit, the NCIP said.
Ciria’s name was cleared through the efforts of the NCIP and the Innocence Commission, which was formed in 2020 by San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin. The commission — an all-volunteer team of legal and medical experts — spent thousands of hours poring over police reports, court transcripts and other documents.
Ciria himself said he spent countless hours in Folsom State Prison’s law library, studying the law in an attempt to continue to prove his innocence.
Ciria credits a meditation class he took for helping him to maintain his composure. He said he learned to be still and silent for long periods.