The Problem with Eyewitness Accounts

The Problem with Eyewitness Accounts

So many trials come down to eyewitness testimonies. Since a jury wasn’t there, they are relying heavily on the eyes and ears of the people that were there at the scene of the incident. But sometimes witness account aren’t reliable, and the damage done is irreparable.

Luis Lorenzo Vargas Behind Jail for Faulty Eyewitness Accounts

Luis Lorenzo Vargas knows just how damning faulty eyewitness accounts - enough to lock him away for 16 years for three crimes he did not commit.

In 1999, when Vargas, now 46, warned the judge, “You can sentence me to all the years you want, but as far as I’m concerned … that individual that really did these crimes might really be raping someone out there.” Following that statement, he was sentenced to life in prison for three sexual assaults.

But now, thanks to new DNA evidence, a Los Angeles County judge has thrown out Vargas’ rape convictions. The evidence revealed has instead implicated the notorious “teardrop rapist,” an unidentified assailant that has been linked to more than three dozen sexual assaults over the last nearly two decades.

In early November, 2015, the Los Angeles County prosecutors wrote the judge saying the office “no longer has confidence in the [Vargas] convictions.”

But what landed Vargas in jail for these crimes that he did not commit?

Within that questions lies an issue that has been a thorn in the side for law enforcement for ages: eyewitness accounts.

Similarities Between Vargas and Teardrop Rapist

One of the main reasons Vargas was accused of committing these rapes was the similarities between him and the notorious teardrop rapist.

The teardrop rapist is reported to have two “teardrops” tattooed above his left eye. Vargas also has a teardrop tattoo above his left eye - a tattoo that his lawyers say he received when he was thirteen in an attempt to “look cool” to neighborhood kids.

In 1998, LAP investigators noticed that there were a number of similarities between three sexual assaults that had taken place in South L.A. over the course of a few months.

Each attack took place around 6 a.m.

The first one, in February 1998, happened to a 17-year-old girl that was attacked by a man that had asked her for help to catch a bus. The man pulled her to a nearby driveway and then held a knife to her as he sexually assaulted her.

In May of that year, a 24-year-old women was approached by a man while she was waiting for a bus. The man held a knife to her body and threatened he’d kill her if she told anyone. She told the man people were watching her and he ran away.

That woman described her attacker as a Latino man that had two teardrops tattooed near his left eye.

Just a few days later, a 15-year-old girl was raped in the parking lot of an apartment building. She described the same tattoo.

Focus Turns to Vargas

Following the attacks, LAPD investigators turned their focus to Vargas. He lived in the neighborhood, resembled a composite sketch drawn from victim descriptions, and had the faded outline of a teardrop inked under his left eye.

But investigators had another reason to focus on Vargas: his 1992 rape conviction. The charge was brought after he came home drunk one evening and raped his then girlfriend. According to a district attorney’s spokeswoman, Vargas pleaded no contest to the accusation and was sentenced to three years in prison.

Charged for Sexual Assaults

When everything pointed to Vargas, he was arrested in 1999 and went on trial for the three sexual assaults.

All three victims identified him as the man that had attacked them.

Still, Vargas maintained his innocence. He even had co-worker testimonies that placed him at work at the time each of the three attacks took place.

In February, around the time of the first recorded attack, Vargas was working at a bagel shop in Beverly Hills. Later on that year, he moved to a different bagel shop in Hollywood.

Unfortunately, the shops did not keep track of their employees’ hours, and thus Vargas could not provide paperwork that proved he had been at work during the time of the attacks.

As a result, jurors convicted Vargas. He was sentenced to 55 years to life in prison.

Jail Time and Continued Assaults

As Vargas sat in jail for crimes he did not commit, the teardrop rapist continued his spree. He has been tied to at least 39 sexual assaults in the Los Angeles area since 1995, according to Los Angeles Police Capt. The last attack took place in spring 2013, when Vargas was locked up.

Even harder for Vargas’ case, is that investigators aren’t even certain the teardrop rapist has his signature teardrop tattoo. According to Hayes, the “teardrop” may be a scar or a mole near his eye.

The Innocence Project

As Vargas sat behind bars, and the attacks continues happening, he realized that to prove his innocence, he was going to need outside help. After filing appeal and appeal, and unsuccessfully petitioning the state Supreme Court to look at his case, he reached out to the California Innocence Project.

The California Innocence Project is a non-profit that is dedicated to freeing the innocent while changing laws and policies in the state of California.

In 2012, Vargas and the Project filed a request to examine DNA that had been collected from the jean shorts and underwear of one of the victims he had been accused of and convicted of attacking.

The tests yielded genetic material from at least two people: the victim and the teardrop rapist.

A recent letter from the district attorney’s office stated that the sophisticated technology used to exclude Vargas’ DNA did not exist when the case was first heard - back in the late-1990s.

That means Vargas’ case had come down to the similarities between him and the teardrop rapist. And those descriptions had all come from eyewitness accounts.

Eyewitness Accounts

Since DNA testing was first introduced in the 1990s, researchers at the Innocence Project have reported that 73% of 239 convictions that were overturned as the result of updated DNA testing were based on eyewitness testimony. And one third of the overturned cases had come down to the testimony of two or more mistaken eyewitnesses.

According to the district attorney’s, victims who had positively identified Vargas during the trial had not been as certain of him during initial lineups. The prosecutors also realized that a noted discrepancy existed: two of the victims had aid their attacker had two teardrops tattooed near his left eye. But Vargas has only one.

When recently interviewed by investigators, the girl who was raped, now a woman, stood by her identification of Vargas. But prosecutors believe she “honestly but mistakenly identified Vargas at trial as her assailant.”

What jurors need to remember is that eyewitness accounts are not always accurate, in fact, they are fairly inaccurate most of the time. This is not the fault of the eyewitness, but rather a misconception that we all have about how memory works. Most people believe that memory is similar to a video recorder in function: the mind records an event, and on cue, plays the event back as an exact replica. But psychologists have found that memories are actually “reconstructed” rather than “played back.” The act of remembering, says memory researcher and psychologist Elizabeth F. Loftus of the University of California, Irvine, is more like putting puzzle pieces together than retrieving a video recording.

A number of things factor into the ability of an eyewitness to accurately describe a crime, including:

  • Extreme amounts of stress at the scene of the crime or during the identification process. This can be increased during the crime if there are weapons present
  • Use of a disguise (such as a mask or wig) by the perpetrator
  • Racial disparity between the eyewitness and the suspect.
  • The brief amount of time during lineups or other identification procedures.
  • A lack of distinctive characteristics of the suspect, such as tattoos or extreme height.

In Vargas’ case, it was the similarity between his tattoo, and the man that has been accused of actually committing the crimes, the teardrop rapist.

Vargas Cleared to Move Forward

Now that the charges have been dropped, and Vargas’ name cleared, he can try to move on with his life.

His daughter, 26 year-old Crystal Nuñez-Vargas, said she felt a weight lift from her shoulders when Vargas’ release was announced. Her life has been seemingly wrecked by her father’s imprisonment.

Recently married, she decided to hold off on a large wedding, opting for an “on paper” marriage. She wants her father to be there to walk her down the aisle.

“Every little girl’s dream,” she said, choking up.

Vargas’ wish for after his release, she said, is simple: He wants to read bedtime stories to her 7-year-old daughter.

Vargas’ mother,Blanca Alatorre, is also happy her son will be coming home. But she’s still angry for the 16 years she cannot get back. “This can’t happen to other people. It just can’t. It’s injustice.”

If you or loved ones is accused or charged with any type of crime call us. Let us support and help you during this tough time. Our firm award winning attorneys provides hope and peace of mind. The Sevens Legal Criminal Lawyers office is located in both San Diego and Escondido. We have time and time again helped Southern California residents get their cases dismissed or penalties reduced.

Contact Sevens Legal Criminal Lawyers, today for a free consultation.

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