SAN FRANCISCO – After spending 32 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Joaquin Ciria wants justice.
Ciria, 61, was exonerated last spring after a judge vacated his conviction following the reinvestigation of his case by the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office. On November 29, shortly after spending his first Thanksgiving as a free man in three decades, Ciria filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the city and county of San Francisco. If Ciria wins, he could receive a transformative, multimillion-dollar settlement.
There’s no amount of money that can make up for losing 32 years, said Ciria, but a successful lawsuit “will be something to vindicate” what he went through.
Ciria is one of more than 3,200 people who have been exonerated in the United States since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Among exonerees nationwide, Ciria’s case stands out for not only the amount of time spent wrongfully imprisoned—nearly four times longer than the average time lost among exonerees—but also the compensation that legal experts anticipate he will receive.
Ciria’s plight began in San Francisco on the night of March 24, 1990. After an argument broke out in Clara Alley near the Bay Bridge, a gunman fatally shot Ciria’s friend, Felix “Carlos” Bastarrica. At the time of the murder, Ciria was miles away at home with his infant son, partner, and a housemate. During the murder investigation, however, San Francisco Police Department investigators coerced a key witness into implicating Ciria and fabricated additional evidence, according to subsequent reviews of the investigation. A judge sentenced Ciria to 31-years to life in prison.
Ciria spent the next three decades unsuccessfully claiming his innocence through lawsuits he would file from Folsom State Prison, until in 2018 he got the attention of attorneys who decided to reexamine his case. The attorneys, believing his innocence, sent Ciria’s case to the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office for review, where it was taken up by a then-newly formed Innocence Commission tasked with investigating wrongful conviction claims. The commission and the District Attorney’s Office agreed that evidence clearly pointed to Ciria’s innocence. Several months later, a San Francisco Superior Court judge vacated Ciria’s conviction and Ciria was ordered released.
On April 20, 2022, 32 years and one day after he was arrested, Ciria walked out of the doors of the San Francisco County Jail as a free man.
“It was an unbelievable process,” said Ciria, “but we made it.”
Eight months into rebuilding his life, Ciria says there are moments when he is overcome with emotions thinking about what he has gone through. It happens unexpectedly. Recently, he broke down while watching a movie with his son. Ciria has asked other exonerees if these waves of emotion will ever stop.
“Everybody told me, ‘Never, Joaquin. It’s never going to stop. It’s going to be in your mind for the rest of your life.’” He added, “The damage is all the way until we die.”
It is near impossible to put a monetary value on the loss of freedom. But providing compensation is a critical part of correcting past wrongs, says Jon Eldan, executive director of After Innocence, a nonprofit that offers free support services to exonerees, including Ciria.
“We deserve a justice system that is accountable for wrongful incarceration,” said Eldan, “and part of that accountability is providing exonerees with fair and meaningful compensation.”
Compensation is not automatic for individuals who have been released after wrongful incarceration anywhere in the United States. In most states and in the federal legal system, there is a statute to compensate for wrongful incarceration, with varying amounts offered, but to qualify claimants must prove their factual innocence.
Civil rights lawsuits are separate from state compensation. Some exonerees, including Ciria, have viable cases, but not all.
“Most people would very reasonably expect that if you could prove you were imprisoned for a crime that you did not commit, you would have a really good lawsuit,” Eldan said. “But that’s never enough.” Claimants must take additional action to pinpoint official misconduct that led to their wrongful conviction, all while navigating immunity protections and other limitations. The complex and varying requirements contribute to fewer than half of exonerees receiving any compensation, according to a 2019 study by Jeffrey Gutman, professor at The George Washington University Law School.
Ciria has already joined that minority, receiving state compensation in September for slightly more than $1.6 million—$140 per day for the 11,690 days he was wrongfully imprisoned, as stipulated by California’s state compensation statute.
Ciria’s new lawsuit is a federal civil rights case, separate from his successful state compensation claim. According to Jim Bennett, a partner at Norton Law Firm who is representing Ciria in the recently filed lawsuit, a standard metric put out by lawyers arguing these cases is $1 million per year of wrongful incarceration, though it will be up to a jury to determine the exact amount.
“The real injury—and it’s uncompensable—is the loss of freedom and liberty that Joaquin and other wrongfully incarcerated men and women have suffered,” said Bennett. “A significant award should cause the county and the city to take a hard look at what they have done historically and make sure things like this don’t happen again.”
“No award of damages could be too great in these cases,” he added.
Ciria’s lawsuit includes nine separate claims for a jury to consider, based in part on findings from the previous reviews of Ciria’s conviction, that point to misconduct by the San Francisco Police Department investigators who initially handled the murder investigation. Bennett is quick to acknowledge the work of Ciria’s previous attorneys during the exoneration process and the advantages afforded by the fact Ciria has already proven his innocence.
“That is going to have great significance with the court throughout the prosecution of the case and ultimately with the jury at the trial,” said Bennett. He expects the case will go to trial in 12 to 18 months.
Ciria says he feels mixed emotions thinking about the new lawsuit and what he has gone through so far to seek justice.
“Honestly, I just want to put all this behind,” said Ciria. But as much as he worries about this new lawsuit “swallowing” him again, Ciria recognizes that success in court will hold meaning for the family and friends who stood by him while he was incarcerated. It could also help him achieve his goal of purchasing a home in San Francisco so he can be near his son and continue rebuilding his life in the city where his life changed forever.
Ciria also hopes that a successful lawsuit can offer hope for wrongfully convicted individuals who might still be seeking justice.
“It’s going to be something for them to say, ‘You know what? If Joaquin made it that far, I can make it too.’”