Passion for Justice

Law Students Help to Free a San Francisco Man Convicted of Murder

by Mary McInerney, USF News

A group of USF law students helped to exonerate a man this month — 30 years after he was convicted of a murder he did not commit.

Joaquin Ciria, 61, is the first person exonerated as a result of the work of the San Francisco Innocence Commission, a group chaired by School of Law Professor Lara Bazelon. She was assisted on the case by law students Roxann Matthews JD ’22, Angela Crivello JD ’22, Kali Smiley JD ’23, and Amy Metzgar JD ’22; alumni Jenny Estevez JD ’21 and Danielle Potestio JD ’20; and Charlie Nelson Keever, USF’s Racial Justice Clinic staff attorney.

On April 18, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Brendan Conroy took the recommendation of the Innocence Commission and overturned Ciria’s conviction. Ciria was freed from prison two days later, after serving 30 years.

“I hope Mr. Ciria's life moving forward involves the opposite of struggle — ease,” Estevez said. “Mr. Ciria fought against the criminal justice system for decades in order to assert his innocence.”

Three Decades of Detention

Ciria was arrested in 1990 and charged with the murder of a friend, Felix “Carlos” Bastarrica, in the South of Market district. For more than three decades, Ciria insisted he did not commit the murder.

A witness came forward after Ciria’s trial and swore the killer was a different man.

The USF team worked on the project for several years, and the students gained hands-on experience. Estevez said she wrote internal memos for the legal team regarding the procedural aspects of the Innocence Commission, and attended meetings with Bazelon and Ciria’s attorneys to discuss strategy.

“I reviewed all the reporter transcripts from Mr. Ciria’s superior court case in 1991,” Potestio said. She made a list of all of the evidence items that were admitted during the trial to make sure the Innocence Commission still had the exhibits in its possession before submitting the supplemental return to petition for writ of habeas corpus.

Justice, Served

This is the second exoneration on which USF law students and Bazelon have worked. On March 18, 2021, Yutico Briley was freed after serving eight years in prison for an armed robbery in New Orleans. He was 19 at the time of the robbery in 2012, and was sentenced to 60 years in prison without the possibility of parole. Briley’s exoneration was the first for the USF School of Law Racial Justice Clinic.

“This work would not be possible without the hard work of the students at the USF Racial Justice Clinic,” Bazelon said. “To see an exoneration unfold in real time was an amazing experience for all of us. We are thrilled that Mr. Ciria finally won his freedom after advocating for his innocence for three decades. Now finally he has a chance to take back his life.”