Just before 1 p.m. on April 20, the doors of the San Francisco County Jail opened, and Joaquin Ciria emerged. The 61-year-old wore an almost disbelieving smile, and a grey t-shirt depicting the same scene in miniature: a man pulling open a door and stepping out into the light.
Ciria and his supporters had had plenty of time to prepare for this moment, down to the outfit: It had been 32 years and a day since he was arrested for a murder he swore he didn’t commit. Every day since — more than half of Ciria’s life had been spent in California custody. Now, a judge in San Francisco Superior Court had vacated his 1991 conviction, saying new evidence had poked holes in the logic of the decision.
Ciria first hugged his son, who had been six weeks old when Ciria was arrested and now stood as tall as his father. “We made it,” Ciria said.
Then, turning to the assembled crowd of reporters, supporters and family, Ciria thanked the people who’d made his release possible. He motioned to the lawyers and the law students who’d helped to build his case. But his list also included an unusual shout-out: to the office of the San Francisco district attorney, Chesa Boudin.
“God put the right people to make this happen,” he said. If a different district attorney had been in power, he added, he wasn’t sure he would be coming out now.
It might sound surprising to hear a newly free man thank the office that had stolen most of his adult life. And yet that day it made sense: Ciria’s release followed an investigation by the San Francisco district attorney’s Innocence Commission, a panel of experts from around the legal system working pro bono to help the DA’s office root out wrongful convictions. The commission had been a campaign promise of Boudin’s, a part of the progressive platform that had won him San Francisco’s top cop position in 2019. Ciria’s was the commission’s first case. A year and a half after beginning its investigation, the effort was finally bearing fruit, with the first collaborative exoneration in San Francisco’s history.
The Innocence Commission’s structure — independent of the DA’s office, composed mostly of non-prosecutors and entirely of volunteers is unique in the country. But its mission is not. The U.S. legal system prioritizes finality, and many prosecutors long viewed their job as to rack up convictions, then fight tooth and nail to defend them. But in recent years, riding a wave of pressure to reckon with the harms of mass incarceration, a growing number of district attorneys have begun to question that ethos. Many, like Boudin, identify with the so-called progressive prosecutor movement, whose adherents aim to reduce mass incarceration and address racial disparities in the legal system from within the DA’s office — including recognizing that justice means admitting when that office made a mistake. Now, 95 offices around the country have started their own units aimed at reinvestigating possible wrongful convictions. Nearly 650 people have been exonerated with the help of these “conviction integrity units” since 2014, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. And the apologetic DA, once a defense lawyer’s fantasy, is on its way to becoming an archetype.
In San Francisco, though, stories like Ciria’s may remain anomalous. Less than two months after Ciria walked out of prison, Boudin was ousted in a recall election, replaced by a former employee who helmed the campaign that accused him of being soft on crime. The new DA has promised to prioritize reform alongside public safety — and said repeatedly that she’d support the Innocence Commission — but she ended her first week in office by firing its liaison to her team. As the commission’s future hangs in the balance, Ciria remains the only person the effort has been able to free.
His story — woven together based on a year and a half of interviews and hundreds of pages of court documents — shows what’s possible when a county’s top prosecutor commits to righting his office’s wrongs. But the case also demonstrates the challenges and limitations of the progressive prosecution movement, including the uphill battle facing even its least contentious reforms. Even with the district attorney on board, a task as seemingly uncontroversial as getting an innocent man out of prison remains intensely complicated — and makes clear that achieving lasting reform requires changing more than just who does the charging.
As the Innocence Commission’s chair, Lara Bazelon, told me later, “I expected to bowl a strike. And instead, at one point in this process, all the pins came back flying back and hit us in the face.”
Joaquin Ciria’s case began, most everyone now agrees, with a mistake.
One Saturday night in March 1990, a man named Felix Bastarrica was walking down an alley in San Francisco’s Mission District when a white Monte Carlo with a battered fender pulled up beside him. Witnesses saw a man with an afro and a long green trench coat get out of the car and advance towards Bastarrica. The men yelled at one another in a language the witnesses didn’t understand. Then the man in the coat pulled out a gun and shot Bastarrica before jumping back in the passenger’s seat and zooming away.
Hearing rumors that he was a suspect in the murder, Joaquin Ciria, a 29-year-old friend of Bastarrica, brought himself into the police station for questioning. Ciria and Bastarrica had grown up together in Cuba, and both had come to the U.S. in 1980 as part of the Mariel boatlift. In San Francisco, Ciria struggled to make a living and eventually turned to selling drugs, working alongside Bastarrica until a disagreement broke their group into factions. The rift had already led to one murder; now, police seemed to think it had inspired another.
To clear his name, Ciria directed police to talk to the son of an ex-girlfriend — an 18-year-old named George Varela, with whom he said he’d spent the early evening at an arcade. But the officers recognized Varela’s car as the Monte Carlo from the alley. Police told the teenage they knew he’d been the getaway driver, and under pressure, Varela eventually agreed that Ciria had been the shooter.
Ciria, meanwhile, insisted he hadn’t been at the scene of the crime. He swore Varela had dropped him at home before 9 pm, and that he’d spent the rest of the night watching movies with his girlfriend, roommate and newborn son.
But the jury never heard from those alibi witnesses, or from Ciria. (Years later, Ciria’s defense attorney wrote in a declaration that he could not think of any strategic reason for having chosen not to have them testify.) After some hesitation, the two eyewitnesses identified Ciria as the killer, and the prosecutor convinced jurors that Ciria had shot Bastarrica in a rage after Bastarrica’s friend had killed Ciria’s the night before. “The fact is, ladies and gentlemen, that what happened on March 25th, 1990, was a well-planned, coldly and calculated act of revenge,” he said. Ciria was convicted of first-degree murder. Prior drug cases meant he was also found guilty of being a felon in possession of a handgun. His sentence was 31 years to life.
As the decades passed in prison, Ciria filed appeal after appeal, only to see each one denied. When he came up for parole, he continued to insist on his innocence — and again and again was refused. “I would close my eyes and say, ‘When I open my eyes, everything will be like a dream, I’ll be home with family,’” he told me over the phone from Folsom State Prison. But the trick never worked.
In 2018, another man incarcerated at Folsom asked Ellen Eggers to investigate Ciria’s case. Eggers was a long-time defense attorney who had already helped to exonerate two men wrongfully convicted of murder in California. When she met Ciria, she agreed with the prison chaplain, who described him as “a gentle person, kind to those around him, and a believer in always walking the moral path.” And after talking to a new witness — someone Ciria was sure could absolve him — she was convinced he was innocent. Once she’d spent over a thousand hours investigating the case, Eggers brought it to the Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP), where a lawyer named Paige Kaneb agreed to represent Ciria with her.
NCIP, part of Santa Clara University’s law school, had helped to free more than 25 wrongfully convicted people in northern California since 2001. The only case the Project’s lawyers had won in San Francisco County had involved protracted opposition from the DA’s office. (Only five people had ever been exonerated in the county –– all, like Ciria, Black men convicted of murder. Four out of five had been accused of killings that occurred in the same 15-month span as Ciria’s arrest.) “Every case that has been brought there has been a struggle and a fight,” NCIP’s executive director, Linda Starr, told me.
But this time, NCIP had reason to believe it might not be such an uphill battle: In August, the district attorney’s office had contacted Starr, asking her to join a new initiative, their Innocence Commission. Under the new DA, Boudin, they were actively looking for cases that should be overturned.
Chesa Boudin did not start the wave of progressive prosecutors, but he quickly became the movement’s most prominent and polarizing figure. His complex relationship with the legal system started early: When he was a baby, his parents, both members of the left-wing radical group the Weather Underground, were incarcerated for their roles in a botched robbery that left three people dead. Boudin grew up visiting them in prison and started advocating for criminal justice reform when he was a teenager. He eventually became a public defender in San Francisco. But he saw a new path for himself in the campaigns of left-leaning district attorneys like Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner and Chicago’s Kim Foxx: prosecutors who intended to leverage the power of their offices to make a change from the inside, refocusing their resources from the hyper-punitive priorities of the 1990s to rehabilitation and diversion.
After a narrow victory over the establishment candidate in 2019, Boudin quickly delivered on his promise to shake things up in San Francisco. He became the first DA in the country to end the use of cash bail. He restricted his office’s use of sentence enhancements for things like gang affiliation and prior convictions, and helped to reduce jail populations as the pandemic raged through prisons around the country. And in September 2020, Boudin announced his office would set up a process to investigate wrongful convictions.
By 2020, conviction integrity units (CIUs) had become a staple of the progressive prosecution movement. But there existed vast disparities between the best and the rest: While the most successful CIUs had freed dozens of people who’d languished behind bars, more than half — including one started by Boudin’s predecessor in San Francisco, George Gascón — had yet to exonerate a single person.
Samuel Gross, who founded the National Registry of Exonerations, says that’s largely because a conviction integrity unit’s greatest strength — its connection to the DA’s office — can also be its Achilles heel. Some units are staffed by prosecutors who’ve spent their entire careers defending convictions; others find opposition at every turn from their own office’s appellate units.
“Given the huge amount of power that prosecutors have, and the role that puts them in vis-à-vis the police and the courts, it’s hard to think of anything else that could operate as effectively as conviction integrity units,” Gross told me. “As a policy matter, though, you wouldn’t start by designing a system that allocates the review of convictions to prosecutors, of any description. You’d have somebody else do that.”
That’s what Lara Bazelon was thinking, too. The head of the racial justice clinic at the University of San Francisco and a former public defender, Bazelon had long envisioned a new variation on the CIU, one that would combine the access of the district attorney’s office with the impartiality of outsiders. She brought the idea to Boudin, and together they devised a new set-up: an external commission of experts from around the legal system (including the prosecution) who would conduct an independent investigation and report its findings to the DA.
“There are so many biases and institutional obstacles to admitting that we did something wrong, that we made a mistake,” Boudin told me over the phone in March 2021. “And we wanted to ensure that those didn’t color or impact the decisions — that the decisions be made based on the law and the facts, and with an intent to do justice without regard to whose feelings got hurt.”
Boudin appointed Bazelon to helm the commission, and her clinic raised money to pay for a staff attorney named Charlie Nelson Keever to support it. Together, they selected five other commissioners: Arcelia Hurtado, an assistant district attorney; Jacque Wilson, a public defender; Dr. George Woods, a medical expert; LaDoris Cordell, a retired judge; and Linda Starr of NCIP. Each person told me they viewed volunteering on the commission as a chance to combine the lessons of their own experience with the comparatively overwhelming power of the DA’s office.
“I saw so much injustice when I was on the bench. And there are things judges can do to make things right, but there’s so many things we can’t because our hands are tied,” said Cordell, who was the first Black woman on the bench in northern California. “Prosecutors decide who gets charged. Prosecutors decide whether or not to dismiss charges.” Joining the commission, she said, “was a way that I, just me now, could right some wrongs that I saw.”
Like most conviction integrity units, the Innocence Commission decided to prioritize cases where someone had been incarcerated a long time, for a serious crime, and was still in prison. They focused on cases of possible wrongful conviction, while a connected resentencing unit would tackle cases in which a person’s guilt was not necessarily in question, but the punishment seemed incommensurate to the crime.
Among the eight cases submitted by innocence projects and defense attorneys, Ciria’s stood out: He’d been incarcerated for more than three decades, and his lawyers had amassed an impressive amount of material to review. “We were basically kind of handing it to them on a silver platter,” Eggers told me. “We had found the witnesses and gotten the declarations. We were ready to go.”
Five members of the commission met over Zoom for the first time to discuss Ciria’s case in November 2020. As the director of NCIP, the organization defending Ciria, Linda Starr had recused herself from the investigation. (This seemed likely to happen often, given the number of wrongful conviction cases NCIP was involved in, but Bazelon reasoned that Starr’s expertise in assessing innocence made it worth having her on the commission for cases that came from other organizations.) When I spoke to Starr in January 2021, all she knew of the process was what Ciria’s attorneys told her. But from NCIP’s perspective, she was feeling optimistic about the timeline.
“It takes us years to get things reinvestigated, to the top of the pile of a district attorney’s office, to get their attention,” she said. “Years! Nothing happens as quickly as what is happening here.” Starr was confident that a thorough look by unbiased investigators would help the case move faster. If the commission agreed that Ciria was innocent, she wagered, the DA wouldn’t feel the need to take the case back to court and fight it out: He could just tell a judge to send Ciria home.
“Litigating is a lot of effort and time,” she said. “And if that can be avoided by having an organization like the Innocence Commission do some of that work outside the courtroom, that’s a grand thing.”
The commission pored over the hundreds of pages of information Ciria’s lawyers had compiled. They immediately noted several issues in the original investigation and trial. No physical evidence connected Ciria to the crime — and of the three eyewitnesses who’d pointed him out at trial, two were strangers who’d only seen him across a dark alley. An eyewitness ID expert hired by the commission explained that neither of those identifications would hold up to today’s scrutiny: They’d relied on photo line-up practices that have since been discredited, and both were cross-racial identifications, which are particularly subject to error. What’s more, neither witness’ initial description matched the clothes Ciria had worn that night or his hairstyle.
The prosecution’s star witness had been George Varela, the 18-year-old getaway driver. Varela refused to speak to the commissioners, but when they read a transcript of his 1990 police interrogation, they found that the jury had never heard a crucial part of the tape: Police told Varela they knew that Ciria was the killer, and that he’d traveled in Varela’s car. They warned him that if he continued to “lie and cover up for Joaquin,” he could be in “deep shit.” Eventually, the teenager repeated, “OK, just like you said.” He received full immunity for his testimony.
Most compelling to the commission, however, was new evidence Ellen Eggers had produced.
Two women — Varela’s sister and a family friend — both swore Varela told them years later that he knew Ciria was innocent. And on top of that, another eyewitness had come forward. A man named Roberto Socorro said he had been present for the murder and knew who did it — and it was not Ciria.
Socorro was the man convicted of killing Ciria’s friend the night before the murder in question. Over Zoom in December 2020, he told the commission that he had been hiding out in a hotel room overlooking the alley when Bastarrica was killed by another Cuban they all knew. For decades, Socorro kept the secret to himself, wary of being labeled a snitch — even as he spent years in prison with Ciria. But when he was eventually deported to Cuba, he tracked down Ciria’s family to come clean. The experience — and that of testifying before the commission, Socorro told me — felt “like getting all the poison out of me.”
In the meantime, Ciria’s attorneys had submitted a petition to the court asking it to review his case, and in March 2021, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Loretta Giorgi ordered the DA’s office to explain why he should or should not be released. In April, the commissioners came to their unanimous conclusion: The evidence they’d reviewed was strong enough that it completely undermined the prosecution’s original case. On April 11, they told the DA as much in their first-ever report.
Two hours north, in Folsom prison, Ciria had no idea what the commission had decided — the report was confidential. But when we spoke on the phone, he told me he was cautiously allowing himself to hope: After so many years of fighting, he felt confident that this investigation would be his ticket home.
“Be innocent for a murder you did not commit, and it’s easy to come to prison,” he said. “To find the key to open the door? Oh, my God, it is not easy. And the reason why it’s not easy is because they don’t admit it. They don’t say, ‘You know what, we made a mistake with this man, we’re going to review this, we’re going to find out the truth.’” But, he told me, “If the district attorney is accountable for everything that they do, maybe, maybe, something starts to change.”
Whatever the commissioners believed about Ciria, what happened next would hinge on the DA: Boudin could opt to take the commission’s recommendations seriously or drop them. Then, he’d share his view with a judge who would either reverse the conviction or send the case back into court.
On June 9, 2021, Boudin made his decision. He asked the court to overturn Ciria’s conviction, not just because there were problems with the original trial, but because he believed Ciria was actually innocent.
Ciria’s lawyers were thrilled. At that point, “I was like, OK, certainly now he’s going to be let out of prison,” said Eggers. “He’s going to be out any day.” Ciria’s wife, Gloria, whom he’d met through a friend while in prison, mailed Eggers a new outfit for Ciria to wear when he was released.
But June slipped by, then July, then August. And as time passed, it became clear that just because the DA was on board with the effort didn’t necessarily mean everyone was.
In September, the red flag came from Giorgi, the judge reviewing Ciria’s case. Writing that she was unsatisfied with the prosecution’s “blanket concession,” she ordered the DA’s office to submit another, longer explanation of their investigation. And she called for a hearing to address a possible conflict of interest, arguing that the fact that Linda Starr was both a member of the commission and the head of the organization representing Ciria threatened the integrity of the effort.
Bazelon was surprised — she said the five-page concession the DA had filed had been based on similar ones filed by the DA in nearby Santa Clara County, who had not faced skepticism when conceding a case. But she and Arcelia Hurtado, the assistant district attorney on the commission, submitted an additional 88-page document laying out the details of their investigation. At the hearing, they explained that Starr had recused herself from the commission’s consideration of Ciria’s case entirely. (Though Bazelon insists that the firewall prevented any unethical behavior, Starr eventually resigned from the commission to avoid further conflict.) Still, the judge continued to delay.
In early January 2022, seven months after the district attorney told the court he believed Ciria was innocent, Giorgi finally delivered her response. She wrote that she questioned “the reliability of the People’s investigation through the Innocence Commission, as the State simply did not do enough.” Arguing that she couldn’t assess the credibility of the witnesses using only the commission’s report, Giorgi ordered an evidentiary hearing. Now, both sides would have to do exactly what they assumed the DA’s decision would make unnecessary: come to court to question the witnesses in front of a judge.
Eggers, Ciria’s attorney, was livid. “I thought it was extremely unusual and unfortunate that a Superior Court judge would choose to ignore the fact that both sides were in total agreement on someone’s innocence. That seems appalling to me,” she told me later. Most frustrating to her was that if the judge believed a hearing was necessary anyway, she could have ordered it more than half a year before — time that Ciria had spent sitting in Folsom.
Bazelon took a more measured tone. “A judge is not a potted plant. They don’t have to do what the DA and defense counsel tell them to do,” she said. But, she added, “To me, the orders read more like advocacy, the advocacy of a traditional prosecutor. And that was also not what I was expecting, to be honest.”
Giorgi’s response was less surprising to Patricia Cummings, who recently became the director of the National Registry of Exonerations after several years running the conviction integrity unit in Philadelphia, one of the most successful in the country. Cummings told me she encountered similar skepticism from judges in Philly while working for Larry Krasner — another figurehead of the progressive prosecution movement.
“Judges get confused and very, you know, distrustful, because all of a sudden, you’ve got a prosecutor who’s not advocating for conviction and punishment,” she said. When facing a new investigative body, operated by a prosecutor whose priorities they don’t necessarily trust, Cummings explained, some judges opt to put on the brakes and check the work themselves.
Cummings sees some of that as reasonable — judges wanting to do their due diligence. But some times, she said, it comes down to an old-fashioned understanding of courtroom roles, and the person who bears the burden is the one waiting in prison. The Supreme Court has decreed that prosecutors have a two-fold mandate: to ensure “that guilt shall not escape nor innocence suffer.” But in extreme cases, judges have gone so far as to argue that addressing a wrongful conviction is not within the DA’s power — even when everyone else believes the person innocent.
Also hard to separate out, Cummings said, is plain old politics. By the time Ciria’s case got to Giorgi, the debate surrounding a district attorney’s role had grown more heated in San Francisco than perhaps anywhere else in the country. While many on the left saw Boudin’s reforms as a necessary corrective to a cruel and inequitable system, he was also facing a recall campaign from a growing contingent of San Franciscans who accused him of making the city less safe, and his every move met with intense scrutiny.
This summer, I emailed Giorgi to ask if the controversy around the DA had shaped her approach to Ciria’s case. She declined to comment, citing the judicial code of ethics.
But in Bazelon’s mind, there was little question that the drama engulfing Boudin was having an impact on this case. “If Chesa had been a middle of the road or, you know, right-leaning prosecutor, it would have gone completely differently,” she later told me.
Whatever the reason, it was clear that the DA’s faith in Ciria’s innocence had not cleared the way for his release. “The Court is not bound to the concessions of the parties,” Giorgi wrote in January. And rather than preparing to help Ciria reenter the world, his lawyers found themselves getting ready for court.
For the hearing, the case was assigned a new judge: Brendan Conroy. When Bazelon and Hurtado met with him in early February, Conroy seemed to have few of Giorgi’s reservations about the commission’s investigation. “The record as to the alibi witnesses, Socorro, and the identification issues appears to be fully developed and will be considered,” he wrote in an email the next day, asking only to hear from George Varela — the young man who’d implicated Ciria — and the two women who’d told Eggers he’d later admitted lying. Conroy scheduled the first day of the hearing for just a week and a half later.
Over the next two months, the parties met in the courtroom three times to interview the witnesses. Denise Corretjer, Varela’s older sister, testified that her brother had told her years later that he knew Ciria was innocent, and that he’d just gone along with what the police wanted him to say. Speaking over Zoom from prison, Caridad Gonzalez — a longtime friend of Varela’s family — explained that he’d told her the same.
Hurtado, cross-examining the witnesses on behalf of the district attorney’s office, asked questions aimed at clearing up credibility: whether Ciria had asked the witnesses to help him, what their criminal records were, why they hadn’t come forward sooner. Her tone was respectful. For spectators used to the theatrics of a traditional trial, this quiet, collaborative courtroom was almost bizarre. Rather than trying to catch an opposing witness off-guard or manipulate the facts into a more convenient and compelling story, both the prosecution and the defense were probing for the truth. And on that matter, there was no dispute: both sides had publicly proclaimed their belief in Ciria’s innocence months before.
In early April 2022, Ciria watched over Zoom from Folsom as the young man he’d considered a stepson was led into the room in handcuffs. (Varela, who’d never agreed to speak to the commission, had refused to answer the judge’s subpoena, and had arrived in court only after he was arrested for a different crime.)
But the long-awaited moment was anticlimactic. After each question (“Did you allegedly drive Mr. Ciria to the scene of where Mr. Felix Bastarrica was murdered?” “Did you see him shoot anyone on that day?” “Did the police pressure you into saying that Mr. Ciria was the person who killed Mr. Bastarrica?”) Varela invoked his fifth amendment rights. Answering the questions truthfully would likely have meant admitting he’d been lying on the stand in 1991, and the DA’s office declined to offer him immunity from perjury. So the opportunity to hear what had really happened on the night of March 25, 1990 — from the prosecution’s key witness — disappeared. Now, Conroy had all the evidence he was going to get.
Just over a week later, on April 18, the parties gathered a final time for the judge’s ruling. Ciria was allowed to attend in person. Behind him in the courtroom, his son watched, too.
Conroy said the evidence against Ciria at trial had not been overwhelming, but not weak, either. Still, he said, he’d found the testimony in the courtroom — plus that of Socorro before the commission — to be convincing. Combined with the faulty eyewitness tactics the commission’s expert had explained, he found it “reasonably likely that one juror would change their mind.”
That was all that was needed — Bazelon looked over to the table where Ciria sat with a triumphant smile.
The judge did not go so far as to grant Ciria the status of “actual innocence,” as the DA’s office had requested, but the conviction was overturned. Hurtado said the DA’s office would not seek to retry him, and with that, the judge ordered him released. “Good luck to you, Mr. Ciria,” he said.
The next day, I spoke to Pedro, Ciria’s son, who was waiting anxiously for the county jail to process his father and let him out.
Pedro had spent his childhood making fourteen-hour trips to visit Joaquin. He hadn’t seen his father outside a prison visiting room since before he was old enough to remember. “It doesn’t feel real,” he said.
Boudin had recently welcomed home his own father, who, too, had been in prison since Boudin was an infant. During a press conference, as he celebrated Ciria’s exoneration, the DA noted that the moment was bittersweet. “We cannot forget that there’s been a lot of suffering, which today will not undo,” he said.
When I caught up with Boudin the following week, he was on his way to meet Ciria for the first time. But now, his tone was pragmatic. Just over a month out from the recall election, his challenge was to prove to voters that he cared as much about public safety as he did about justice — and his rhetoric on the Innocence Commission had turned slightly towards law and order. He was proud of the commission, he told me, because its work not only freed the innocent — but helped shore up trust in the convictions his office did defend.
“We need the public to trust that when we secure convictions, it’s because the people we’re prosecuting actually committed the crime they’re being convicted of,” he said. “It’s essential to the rule of law, it’s essential to public integrity, it’s essential to public safety. And when we find a case like Mr. Ciria’s, it doesn’t matter where in the world or when it occurred, it is imperative that we make it right.”
Boudin said that, like Bazelon and Eggers, he’d been surprised by the delays in the case, especially Giorgi’s hesitation. But he said it was a reminder of the limits of his role — something he was continually emphasizing as critics blamed him for problems stemming from issues as wide-ranging as homelessness and lack of mental healthcare.
“There’s a lot of focus on my office right now, as you know,” he said. “The conversation often suggests that we’re all-powerful, and that, you know, we make arrests, and that we jail people and that we convict people, and we do all the things. But the reality is that our system, like pretty much all systems in American government, is a system designed to have checks and balances, and different parties playing different roles.”
It’s a message that comes in stark contrast to the optimism of the Innocence Commission’s first months — and the start of the progressive prosecution movement, which was premised on the idea that changing who’s doing the charging is the key to changing everything. But if the movement is to survive, Boudin seemed to be saying, it will require people to believe in what an ethical prosecutor can do — and to understand what they can’t.
Bazelon was thrilled with the case’s conclusion. Unlike the majority of more traditional conviction integrity units, what had begun as an academic pipe dream of hers had now successfully freed an innocent man from prison. She acknowledged that the path had been rocky — but said she thought it would get easier with time, as the commission worked out its kinks and judges acclimated. She was eager to continue the work. When Ciria’s case moved on to the judicial stage, the commission had begun investigating a second case, ultimately recommending late last year that the defendant be resentenced but not exonerated. By this spring, they were working on a third investigation, and had a list of other cases to consider.
But more recently, Bazelon has begun to worry about whether the commission will get the chance to hear them.
On June 7, 55 percent of the San Franciscans who cast their ballots voted to recall Boudin. To replace him until the November election, Mayor London Breed appointed Brooke Jenkins, a prosecutor who resigned from Boudin’s office and went on to spearhead the recall effort. Jenkins told KQED and the San Francisco Chronicle repeatedly that she would continue working with the Innocence Commission. On her first Friday in office, though, she fired 15 prosecutors Boudin had hired, including Hurtado, the head of the post-conviction unit and the DA’s liaison to the commission.
Then, on July 25, almost a week after the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution urging the DA to keep the commission in its current form, Jenkins emailed Bazelon to say she’d be happy to sit down and talk about finding a new liaison.
Bazelon told me last week she is currently assuming that the DA is operating in good faith. “I think the person that she appoints will signal whether we can continue to have this very important collaboration,” she said. “What I don’t want is to be window dressing and not taken seriously.”
The DA’s office did not return multiple requests for comment on the future of the commission.
Assuming the effort survives, its vulnerability remains a sobering message for advocates of reform. The new administration has already rolled back many of Boudin’s more radical policies; even the project of rectifying wrongful convictions is still at the mercy of politics.
No one understands the stakes better than Joaquin Ciria — for whom the Innocence Commission was not just an experiment, but a crucial cog in the complex machine of advocates, witnesses and investigators who won him back his life.
A week after Ciria was released, his wife, Gloria, flew to California from San Antonio. Gloria hadn’t been able to visit Ciria in prison since the start of the pandemic. When she arrived at the airport, he was waiting for her at baggage claim. They’d never met outside of the prison — and they were both nervous, he told me. But when he saw her, he was overwhelmed. “Is that my wife?” he remembers asking himself. “She was so beautiful.”
Eventually, Ciria plans to move to Texas to be with Gloria. But sitting on the couch with her at Eggers’ house, he told me he also has another dream. He wants to buy an 18-wheeler and spend a year traveling the country with his son, Pedro. “When you open the window and you see the air going into the cab, and you’re driving this big monster?” he said. “You feel free.”
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