Exonerated Man Receives Record $12M from City of San Jose after 17 Years in Prison for Attempted Murder; Charges Cops ‘Framed’ Him

SAN JOSE, CA – The city of San Jose said this week it’s awarding Lionel Rubalcava—who was released in 2019 after 17 years in prison—a “record” $12 million, according to KTVU news, and other news outlets.

Rubalcava’s case was reviewed by the Northern California Innocence Project after they claimed police “contorted their investigation to implicate him in a 2002 shooting,” and he was convicted of attempted murder, said KTVU.

The Northern California Innocence Project spent five years on the man’s case, eventually disproving testimony that suggested he was the trigger man in the drive-by shooting—Rubalcava then sued three San Jose police officers, and said they ignored evidence that would have proven his innocence, said KTVU.

Rubalcava’s attorney, Nick Brustin, told KTVU, “This wasn’t an isolated incident of one officer making a mistake. They should have known, or did know, that Lionel was innocent.”

The Bay Area News Group reported that this is the largest payout for a police misconduct claim in San Jose’s history.  The vote was 8–1, with the only vote against the award cast by Councilmember Bien Doan.

The Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University School of Law found “eyewitness identifications were unreliable and that Rubalcava should never have been convicted. Later that year, he was declared “factually innocent” by the Santa Clara County Superior Court, reported KQED.

The man’s attorneys said the conviction was based on the identifications San Jose police collected by threatening, pressuring and coercing witnesses, including the victim of the shooting.

“We are supposed to be able to trust police officers for our protection and safety,” Rubalcava said in a statement. “In my case, the San Jose Police Department singled me out and framed me for a crime I didn’t commit. My family and I are grateful we can now put this nightmare behind us.”

Rubalcava was convicted despite his strong alibi, backed by cell phone data, that he was headed to a date in Hollister when the shooting occurred, KQED said, noting Rubalcava’s attorneys alleged police investigators “fabricated police reports” that claimed three witnesses identified him “instantaneously and without any police suggestion.”

However, Rubalcava’s lawyers charged that “none of the witnesses independently made positive identifications of anyone, let alone the innocent Rubalcava,” and admitted police pressured them.

A federal judge in March allowed the lawsuit against San Jose Police Detective Joe Perez and Officers Steven Spillman and Topui Fonua, who investigated the case, to go to trial, reported KQED.

“A jury reasonably could infer that Perez, Fonua, and Spillman falsified the police reports for the purpose of depriving Rubalcava of constitutional rights,” U.S. District Court Judge Beth Labson Freeman said.

Brustin said, according to a story by KQED, “for many years, (the city) fought tooth and nail, wouldn’t concede his innocence, attacked him and his character in ways that just were not helpful,” adding “the large payout should be painful for the city and should push its leaders to openly assess their internal practices to identify systemic issues that may have affected other cases.”

While Santa Clara University law professor Linda Starr, co-founder of the Northern California Innocence Project, told KQED that while she was pleased with the win for Rubalcava, “no amount of money can give back so much lost time.”

“With all the things that he has been through, a lot of people would have lost hope and would be angry. He’s none of those things,” Brustin said. “He came out of prison and completely rebuilt his life. He’s got two businesses, he’s rebuilding his family, and he’s taking care of his parents. So to be able to see this resolve for him is just an incredible feeling.”

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