He spent 30 years in prison on a wrongful murder conviction. A Chesa Boudin campaign promise will free him

Joaquin Ciria was arrested in 1990 for a murder in San Francisco that he insists he did not commit.

On Monday, 32 years later, Superior Court Judge Brendan Conroy overturned the conviction and granted a new trial after a request from San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin. Boudin was following a recommendation made by his Innocence Commission. A prosecutor said in court that the District Attorney’s Office would dismiss the case against Ciria, clearing the way for him to go free.

After the hearing, Ciria’s son, Pedro, embraced loved ones, his eyes red from crying.

“It feels good,” said the 32-year-old, who was 6 weeks old when his father was arrested.

Ciria, 61, counts as the first person exonerated by the commission, a unique model that Boudin has sought to advance with state legislation at a time when most conviction review units nationwide have shown no results.

Monday’s ruling makes San Francisco’s only the second district attorney’s office in the Bay Area to help exonerate someone with its version of a conviction review unit, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Santa Clara County’s unit has been involved in five overturned convictions dating back to 2011.

Though Boudin followed the commission’s recommendation, he has final authority on what to do.

“Our office is proud of and grateful for the work of the Innocence Commission in rectifying the wrongful conviction of Mr. Ciria, ”Boudin said in an emailed statement. “Although we can not give him back the decades of his life lost we are grateful that the court has corrected this miscarriage of justice.”

The commission’s decision was largely owed to a man who came forward to say he witnessed the murder and recognized the killer as a different man.

Roberto Socorro swore in a declaration that he saw and heard the killer, a man he knew, but did not come forward for two reasons. First he did not believe in cooperating with the police. Second, because he was a close friend of the victim, Socorro said he made a vow to find the man himself and take revenge.

But Socorro’s conscience found him before he could find the man.

“I am deeply ashamed of my selfish decision to remain silent all these years,” Socorro wrote in his declaration.

The Chronicle is not naming the alleged shooter because he has not been charged and could not be reached for comment.

It is not yet clear when Ciria will be released, though his attorneys say it could be anytime this week.


A 1989 photos shows Joaquin Ciria a year before he was arrested for a 1990 murder in San Francisco, Calif. on Sunday, April 17, 2022.


Brontë Wittpenn / The Chronicle

A 1989 photo shows Joaquin Ciria before he was wrongly arrested for a 1990 murder in San Francisco.

A 1989 photo shows Joaquin Ciria before he was wrongly arrested for a 1990 murder in San Francisco.


Brontë Wittpenn / The Chronicle


Joaquin Ciria in 1989, a year before he was arrested.

A disbelieved alibi

The murder happened on March 25, 1990, outside the Bay Bridge Hotel in SoMa.

Felix Bastarrica, 30, whose friends called Carlos, was walking down an alley around 9 pm when a white car pulled up, according to case records filed in court with Ciria’s petition. An armed man climbed out. An argument ensued, followed by gunshots, including one into Bastarrica’s head.

The hotel was a popular haunt for locals who had fled Cuba in a mass migration in 1980. In what would become known as the Mariel boat lift, 125,000 people traveled from the port of Mariel to the shores of South Florida. Amid a crisis in Cuba, President Jimmy Carter had said those who could make it to the US would be granted asylum.

Police searched the immigrant community for suspects.

Ciria and the victim, who police claimed were part of a crack cocaine ring, both immigrated to the US in the Mariel era.

Ciria was friends with the victim. He did not match witness descriptions of the killer, who had a short Afro, according to filings by the District Attorney’s Office. Ciria, who is Afro-Cuban, had a Jheri curl. He had two alibi witnesses who said he was at home after a stop at his favorite arcade, where he loved to play Pac-Man when he was not spending time with his little boy.

But a rumor started going around that he did it. In a court filing, the District Attorney’s Office said the rumor was started by the real killer and caused investigators to focus on Ciria.

After finding an 18-year-old named George Varela who admitted driving the killer to the scene, investigators pressed him.

“If you’re going to continue to sit in here and lie and cover up for Joaquin,” one inspector said, “you’re going to be in some deep (expletive).”

Varela could have been prosecuted for his role in the murder, but instead was granted immunity.

Ciria was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life on March 22, 1991.

Through the years, he’s come up for parole hearings multiple times, but was always denied after he refused to admit guilt and express remorse for the crime.

“For him to still hold his ground says a lot,” said Pedro Ciria. “You’re not going to put yourself through all that denying you did not do it if you’re not innocent.”

Varela has not spoken to investigators or attorneys about the murder since the 1990s, but others say he told them Ciria was innocent. One is a friend; the other is Varela’s sister who, in a sworn statement, said Varela told her the shooter was “another Cuban.”

Varela was recently brought into court to testify before the judge. With every question, Varela invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, said University of San Francisco Professor Lara Bazelon, chair of the Innocence Commission.

Socorro said he was in the hotel near the scene of the murder because he’d shot and killed a man the night before and thought the Bay Bridge would be a good hiding spot. Socorro ended up serving three decades for that murder.

An undated photo shows Joaquin Ciria with his son Pedro while Joaquin was serving time in prison for a 1990 murder he insists he did not commit.  On Monday, April 18, 2022, a San Francisco Superior Court judge overturned Joaquin's conviction.

An undated photo shows Joaquin Ciria with his son Pedro while Joaquin was serving time in prison for a 1990 murder he insists he did not commit. On Monday, April 18, 2022, a San Francisco Superior Court judge overturned Joaquin’s conviction.


Brontë Wittpenn / The Chronicle

An undated photo shows Joaquin Ciria kissing Yojana Paiz while their son Pedro looks on while Joaquin was serving a prison sentence for a 1991 murder conviction that was overturned in San Francisco Superior Court on Monday, April 18.

An undated photo shows Joaquin Ciria kissing Yojana Paiz while their son Pedro looks on while Joaquin was serving a prison sentence for a 1991 murder conviction that was overturned in San Francisco Superior Court on Monday, April 18.


Brontë Wittpenn / The Chronicle


Joaquin Ciria with Yojana Paiz and their son Pedro while Joaquin was in prison.

‘I found him credible’

The original San Francisco Police Department investigation was led by retired officers including Art Gerrans and Jim Crowley. Gerrans and Crowley were also involved in the 1991 wrongful conviction of Maurice Caldwell, who sued the city after serving 20 years and won $ 8 million in 2021.

Bazelon said the commission took up Ciria’s case after his attorneys with the Northern California Innocence Project came to the District Attorney’s Office. The commission – a panel of legal experts of varying backgrounds – began amassing documents.

Members reviewed the entire Police Department file for Ciria’s case and, to be sure they were not missing anything, Socorro’s. They read numerous legal filings and sought witnesses and experts.

Bazelon found it important to be thorough to show how serious the commission is.

Many elected prosecutors have been accused of running a so-called CRINO, or Conviction Review Unit in Name Only. Such units can be underfunded or understaffed for the task of reinvestigating cases, which can take years, researchers with the National Registry of Exonerations have found.

The Innocence Commission is a different model from others in that it is meant to be more independent of the District Attorney’s Office. The reasoning is partly that any prosecutors leading such a process would inevitably run into conflicts when investigating their office’s own potential failures.

Nationally, there are 93 conviction integrity units; almost all are within prosecutors’ offices, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Only 41 have helped overturn wrongful convictions.

Boudin, along with Assembly Member Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, in March announced the introduction of AB2706, which would create pilot programs mimicking the San Francisco Innocence Commission in three as-yet-unnamed counties. It’s still winding through the state house, but had a favorable report in committee.

Ciria’s case was the first the Innocence Commission reviewed. It’s reviewing two others.

Bazelon said it was Socorro’s testimony before the commission that convinced her of Ciria’s innocence.

“I found him credible,” she said. “I found the story credible.”

The judge also said he found Socorro’s statements compelling. He stopped short of saying that he believed Ciria was innocent, but said Ciria probably would not have been convicted if they had all the information available today.

“I’m going to find that it’s reasonably likely that one juror would have changed their vote,” Conroy said.

Ciria thanked the judge for the opportunity to be heard all these years later. After Conroy read his decision, Ciria declined to make a statement as he took it in.

In the courtroom gallery, Ciria’s former partner, Yojana Paiz, sat with their son, Pedro. Paiz had maintained for 32 years that Ciria had been at home when the murder happened. No one believed her until it was much too late.

Now she leaned over on her son’s chest and sobbed.

Joshua Sharpe is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: joshua.sharpe@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @joshuawsharpe

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