Even the district attorney believed Joaquin Ciria was innocent. Why did it take so long to free him?

In early January 2022, seven months after the prosecutor told the court he believed Ciria was innocent, Giorgi finally delivered his answer. She wrote that she questioned “the reliability of the people’s investigation through the Innocence Commission, because the state simply hasn’t done enough.” Arguing that she could not assess the credibility of the witnesses using only the commission’s report, Giorgi ordered a hearing of the witnesses. Now both sides should do exactly what they thought the prosecutor’s decision would make unnecessary: ​​come to court to question witnesses in front of a judge.

Eggers, Ciria’s lawyer, 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 complete agreement about someone’s innocence. It seems appalling to me,” she told me later. Most frustrating for her was that if the judge thought a hearing was necessary anyway, she could have ordered it more than six months ago – the time Ciria had spent in Folsom.

Bazelon took on a more measured tone. “A judge is not a potted plant. They don’t have to do what the prosecutor and defense attorney tell them to do,” she said. But, she added, “For me, the orders are more like a plea, the plea of ​​a traditional prosecutor. And it wasn’t what I expected either, to be honest.

Giorgi’s response came as less of a surprise to Patricia Cummings, who recently became director of the National Exemption Registry after several years leading Philadelphia’s conviction integrity unit, one of the nation’s most successful. Cummings told me she encountered similar skepticism from judges in Philadelphia while working for Larry Krasner — another leading figure in the progressive prosecution movement.

“Judges get confused and very, you know, suspicious, because all of a sudden you have a prosecutor who doesn’t advocate conviction and punishment,” she said. Faced with a new investigative body, led by a prosecutor whose priorities they don’t necessarily trust, Cummings explained, some judges choose to hold back and check the work themselves.

Cummings sees some of that as reasonable — judges wanting to do their due diligence. But sometimes, she says, it comes down to an old-fashioned understanding of courtroom roles, and the person who bears the burden is the one waiting in jail. The Supreme Court has ruled that prosecutors have a dual mandate: to ensure “that guilt does not escape nor that innocence suffers.” But in extreme cases, judges have gone so far as to say that dealing with a wrongful conviction is beyond the prosecutor’s purview, even when everyone believes the person is innocent.

It’s also hard to separate, Cummings said, the old politics. By the time Ciria’s case came to Giorgi, the debate surrounding the role of a district attorney had become 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 unfair system, he also faced a backlash 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 prosecutorial controversy had shaped his approach to Ciria’s case. She declined to comment, citing the Judicial Code of Conduct.

But in Bazelon’s mind, there was little doubt that the drama engulfing Boudin had an impact on this case. “If Chesa had been a middleman or, you know, a right-wing prosecutor, it would have turned out completely differently,” she told me later.

Whatever the reason, it was clear that the prosecutor’s faith in Ciria’s innocence had not paved the way for her release. “The Court is not bound by the parties’ concessions,” Giorgi wrote in January. And rather than preparing to help Ciria reenter the world, her lawyers found themselves preparing for court.

For the audience, the case was assigned to a new judge: Brendan Conroy. When Bazelon and Hurtado met with him in early February, Conroy seemed to have few reservations from Giorgi about the commission’s investigation. “The case file regarding alibi witnesses, Socorro, and identification issues appear to be fully developed and will be reviewed,” he wrote in an email the next day, asking only to hear from George Varela – the young man who had implicated Ciria – and the two women who had told Eggers that he later admitted to lying. Conroy scheduled the first day of the hearing just a week and a half later.

Over the next two months, the parties met three times in the courtroom to question witnesses. Denise Corretjer, Varela’s older sister, testified that her brother told her years later that he knew Ciria was innocent and simply went along with what the police wanted him to say. Speaking on Zoom from prison, Caridad Gonzalez – a longtime friend of Varela’s family – said he told her the same thing.

Hurtado, cross-examining the witnesses on behalf of the prosecutor’s office, asked questions aimed at clarifying credibility: whether Ciria had asked the witnesses to help her, what their criminal record was, why they hadn’t come forward more early. His tone was respectful. For viewers accustomed to the theatrics of a traditional trial, this quiet, collaborative courtroom was almost bizarre. Rather than trying to surprise an opposing witness or manipulate the facts into a more practical and compelling story, the prosecution and defense sought the truth. And on this point there was no dispute: both sides had publicly proclaimed their belief in Ciria’s innocence months before.

In early April 2022, Ciria watched Zoom from Folsom as the young man he believed to be a stepson was led into the room in handcuffs. (Varela, who never agreed to speak to the commission, refused to respond to the judge’s subpoena and only arrived in court after being arrested for a different crime.)

But the long-awaited moment was disappointing. After each question (“Did you take Mr. Ciria to the place where Mr. Felix Bastarrica was murdered?” “Did you see him shoot anyone that day?” did she press to say that Mr. Ciria was the person who killed Mr. Bastarrica?”) Varela invoked his Fifth Amendment rights. Answering questions honestly would likely have meant admitting that he lied on the stand in 1991, and the prosecutor’s office refused to offer him immunity from perjury.Thus, the opportunity to hear what really happened on the night of March 25, 1990 – from key prosecution witness – disappeared. Now Conroy had all the evidence he was going to get.

Just over a week later, on April 18, the parties met one last time for the judge’s decision. Ciria was allowed to attend in person. Behind him in the courtroom, his son was also watching.

Conroy said the evidence against Ciria at trial was not overwhelming, but not weak either. Still, he said, he found the testimony in the courtroom — plus Socorro’s before the commission — compelling. Combined with the flawed eyewitness tactics the commission’s expert explained, he felt it was “reasonably likely that a juror would change his mind.”


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