County of Conviction: Los Angeles
Convicted of: Rape, Kidnapping, Sodomy by Force
Sentence: 55 Years to Life
Years Served: 16 Years
Exonerated: November 23, 2015
Cost of Wrongful Incarceration*: $1,299,248
*According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office 2018-19 annual costs per CA inmate
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Years Served: 16
On December 7, 1999, just before being sentenced 55 years-to-life for three crimes he did not commit, Luis Vargas addressed the Los Angeles Superior Court, stating, “…I will pray for God’s mercy on all of you…but as far as I’m concerned, as far as I’m concerned [the] individual [who] really did these crimes might really be raping someone out there, might really be killing someone out there.”
The California Innocence Project (CIP) began investigating Luis’s case in 2011. His case was riddled with textbook post-conviction red flags, including the most prominent of all: eyewitness misidentification. The prosecution’s entire case relied on the wavering identifications of three traumatized young ladies, yet the defense chose not to proffer an eyewitness identification expert. Luis was convicted solely on the victims’ accounts of the savage attacks. Furthermore, the prosecution was beyond adamant the same person committed all three of the assaults.
Luis wrote a letter to CIP and included an article from the L.A. Times, chronicling the serial rape spree of the Tear Drop Rapist. The Tear Drop Rapist was described as a middle-aged Hispanic male with a small build. He became known as the Tear Drop Rapist because he was often described by his victims as having one or two teardrop tattoos under his eye. This was the same description given by the three victims in Luis’s case. In contrast, Luis had one faded, barely visible teardrop tattoo that he received as a homeless thirteen-year-old.
The Tear Drop Rapist committed over 30 attacks, all within a 1.6 mile radius of the three attacks in Luis’s case. Additionally, CIP discovered a striking similarity between the FBI’s published description of the Tear Drop Rapist’s modus operandi (see here) and the District Attorney’s 1999 closing argument.
In 2013, CIP decided to test the only remaining physical evidence available in Luis’s case: the rape kit and clothing from one of the victims. CIP filed a California Penal Code Section 1405 motion for post-conviction DNA testing. The Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office agreed to test the requested items. The DNA test results revealed Luis did not commit the rape, but the Tear Drop Rapist did.
To date, the Tear Drop Rapist is attributed to having committed 35 attacks; not including the three attacks for which Luis was convicted.
On November 23, 2015, Luis Vargas was exonerated of all three sexual assaults. Through cooperation with the District Attorney’s Office, Judge Ryan of the Los Angeles Superior Court threw out Luis’s convictions. At the time, Luis was the California Innocence Project’s third DNA exoneration and 20th freed client overall.