SAN JOSE AGREES to $12 MILLION SETTLEMENT for Man Wrongfully Convicted in 2002 Shooting

SAN JOSE AGREES to $12 MILLION SETTLEMENT for Man Wrongfully Convicted in 2002 Shooting

San José will pay $12 million to a man imprisoned for 17 years for a drive-by shooting he did not commit, marking the city’s highest settlement in a police misconduct lawsuit.

The City Council authorized the settlement on Tuesday after a federal court denied the city’s motion to dismiss a federal lawsuit filed by Lionel Rubalcava, who was convicted of a 2002 gang shooting.

Members of the council authorized the settlement but made no statement or comment on the payment.

Rubalcava was identified by three witnesses, but he was released and exonerated in May 2019 after they recanted, and cellphone tracking evidence indicated he was driving to Hollister at the time of the incident.

In the case, Rubalcava’s attorneys claimed that police officers Topui Fonua, Joe Perez, and Steven Spillman ignored evidence that exonerated Rubalcava and “deliberately misrepresented witness statements” that led to his conviction. In denying the city’s attempt to dismiss the case, Judge Beth Labson Freeman stated that a jury could conclude that three San José officers “falsified the police reports for the purpose of depriving [Lionel] Rubalcava of constitutional rights.”

The case was scheduled to go to trial in August.

“Given the clear evidence of serious police misconduct we would have presented at trial, the county of San José made the correct decision today,” said Amelia Green, one of Rubalcava’s attorneys. “Not only should our client never have been prosecuted — the city should have long ago accepted responsibility for Lionel’s wrongful conviction.”

After being released from Pleasant Valley State Prison, Rubalcava sued the city, claiming that detectives violated his civil and due-process rights by ignoring evidence pointing to his innocence.

“We are supposed to be able to rely on police officers for our protection and safety,” Rubalcava said in a statement. “In my case, the San José Police Department singled me out and framed me for a crime I didn’t commit.”

Rubalcava was arrested three days after the April 5, 2002, shooting that left 19-year-old Raymond Rodriguez partially crippled.

During the trial, police and prosecutors alleged that the shooting was motivated by gang rivalry.

During the trial, one of the witnesses recanted their testimony. Rubalcava’s attorneys contended that the motive police provided for the shooting did not make sense because he and Rodriguez belonged to different Norteño criminal gangs and were not rivals.

Rodriguez and his mother informed a detective that they did not believe Rubalcava was the shooter and that Rodriguez was targeted by rival Sureño gang members.

Rubalcava was set free after the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University School of Law took up his case. The Santa Clara district attorney’s office subsequently directed its conviction integrity section to evaluate the case, and the remaining witnesses recanted their testimony. In 2019, the agency petitioned the Superior Court to vacate Rubalcava’s conviction.

Rubalcava was represented by attorneys from Neufeld Scheck Brustin Hoffmann & Freudenberger.

“Neither Lionel nor the victims were served by the corrupt police work that led to an innocent man being prosecuted and the true shooter going free,” Nick Brustin, an attorney, said. “Lionel’s case is yet another example of how racism infects the criminal legal system, in which police too often are willing to prosecute any available young man of color.”


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