County of Conviction: Los Angeles
Convicted of: Rape, Kidnapping, Sodomy by Force
Sentence: 55 Years-to-Life
Years Served: 16 Years
Cost of Wrongful Incarceration: $848,000
Update: On November 23, 2015, Judge William Ryan of the Los Angeles Superior Court exonerated Luis Vargas after 16 years of wrongful incarceration.
On December 7, 1999, just before being sentenced for three crimes he did not commit, Luis Vargas addressed the Los Angeles Superior Court.
Vargas stated, “…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 judge then handed Luis a sentence of fifty-five years to life.
Unfortunately for Luis and the people of Los Angeles, Luis was right.
Unbeknownst to the public at the time, a methodical serial rapist known only as the “Tear Drop Rapist” was committing eerily similar crimes. Sadly, it would take almost fifteen years, dozens of sexual assaults, and many advances in DNA science for anyone to see Luis was speaking the truth on December 7, 1999.
Luis Vargas’s case originally caught the attention of the California Innocence Project (CIP) staff in 2011. His case was riddled with textbook post-conviction red flags. The most prominent red flag of all: eyewitness misidentification. In fact, the prosecution’s entire case relied on the wavering identifications of three traumatized young ladies. Vargas 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. Perhaps one of the most disturbing legal issues in Vargas’s story is that, despite the prosecution’s weak, one dimensional case, the defense chose not to proffer an eyewitness identification expert.
Vargas wrote a letter to CIP and included an article from the L.A. Times, chronicling the sadistic serial rape spree of the Tear Drop Rapist. The Tear Drop Rapist was described as a middle aged, small build, Hispanic male. The Tear Drop Rapist was given his moniker due to the fact that he was often described by his victims as having one or two teardrop tattoos under his eye. This was eerily the same description given by the three victims in the Vargas case. In contrast, Vargas had one faded, barely visible teardrop tattoo that he received as a homeless thirteen-year-old youth.
The Tear Drop Rapist committed over 30 attacks in the last decade, all within a 1.6 mile radius of the three attacks in the Vargas case. As if these facts were not enough, CIP noticed that reading the FBI’s published description of the Tear Drop Rapist’s modus operandi (see here) was like reading a carbon copy of the District Attorney’s 1999 closing argument.
In 2013, CIP decided to test the only remaining physical evidence available in Vargas’s case: the rape kit and clothing from one of the victims. The Los Angeles District Attorney’s office agreed to test the requested items. CIP filed a California Penal Code Section 1405 motion for post- conviction DNA testing. The DNA test results revealed Vargas did not commit the rape, but the Tear Drop Rapist did.
The Tear Drop Rapist is attributed to having committed 35 attacks; not including the three attacks for which Vargas 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 the convictions against Vargas. Vargas is the California Innocence Project’s 3rd DNA exoneration and 20th freed client overall.