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Luis Vargas, who has been in prison for 16 years, reacts in court as he is exonerated Monday, Nov. 23, 2015, in Los Angeles. A judge exonerated Vargas, convicted of three rapes, after DNA evidence linked the crimes to a serial rapist wanted for assaults dating back two decades. (Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times via AP, Pool)A man who spent 16 years in prison after being convicted of three sexual assaults in Los Angeles was cleared by DNA – and is set to be released. Now the three crimes are instead linked to an infamous serial rapist apparently still at large.

Ominously, Luis Vargas told a courtroom in 1999, shortly before sentencing, that he was innocent: “I’m concerned (the) individual (who) really did these crimes might really be raping someone out there, might really be killing someone out there.”

He was sentenced to 55 years to life in prison just moments afterward.

The California Innocent Project took an interest in his case in 2011, after receiving a letter from the inmate, along with clips from the Los Angeles Times describing very-similar attacks attributed to a wanted attacker known as the Teardrop Rapist.

Read more: Why Post-Conviction DNA Testing Works: An Interview with Kirk Bloodsworth

Follow-up DNA testing on the samples of the rape kit proved Vargas did not commit the crime – and that the eyewitness testimony which was the basis of his conviction was based on a similar facial tattoo, according to the Innocence Project.

A judge reversed the conviction Monday. Vargas and his family cried in the courtroom.

Composite sketches of the "Teardrop Rapist"“Bad eyewitness identifications are one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions,” said Justin Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project, in a statement. “It’s amazing that Vargas will finally be released after more than 16 years of wrongful incarceration. 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.”

Instead, the DNA samples show a familiar genetic profile: that of the Teardrop Rapist. The unknown attacker has been directly linked to 11 previous crimes through DNA, and is suspected of 35 total rapes in Los Angeles from 1996 through 2012. The FBI has listed the Rapist as one of its most wanted for the last two years.

The Teardrop Rapist’s modus operandi is to seek out Hispanic women at bus stops in the early morning, ask for directions, show a weapon, and then force them into the alley, according to authorities. A $25,000 reward is currently being offered for information leading to the arrest of the suspect, who has been identified by victims for having one or two teardrop tattoos underneath his left eye. He is between 40 and 55 years old, stands between 5-foot-2 and 5-foot-6, has brown hair and eyes and is described as Hispanic. He also potentially has a moustache, a light complexion, a covering like a hood or bandanna or baseball hat covering his head. All his noted attacks were carried out within 1.6 miles of the Southeast Los Angeles rapes Vargas had been convicted of, according to authorities.

The Teardrop Rapist is considered armed and dangerous.

“If somebody has information, it’s crucially important for them to report it to avoid him attacking even one more person,” said Olivier Farache, FBI special agent on the case, in 2013.

The Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office agreed to the petition asking for the reversal of the Vargas conviction, based on the forensic science. The DNA testing in 1998 and 1999 was not as sensitive as it is in 2014 and 2015. The newest findings excluding Vargas were therefore not available for his trial 16 years ago, they said.

"When the results of the DNA tests are considered in light of the three victims' tentative pre-trial identifications, the (district attorney's office) no longer has confidence in the convictions rendered against Mr. Vargas," the Los Angeles Attorney's Office wrote to the judge in a Nov. 10 letter. "It is the People's position that Mr. Vargas has met the burden request for the ranting of habeas corpus relief based upon 'newly discovered evidence' which has 'undermine(d) the entire prosecution case and point(s) unerringly to innocence.'"

The DNA reevaluation worked as it should have in Vargas' case - albeit after years spent in prison, according to Raquel Cohen, staff attorney for the California Innocence Project.

“I’m so pleased that the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office agreed to examine the case and join us in the petition to reverse the convictions,” Cohen said. “This is how cases should be resolved.”

The Innocence Project, which has been overturning criminal convictions in the United States for about a decade, has claimed 1702 exonerations nationwide – 156 of them for inmates on death row, they said.

 

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