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Daniel Saldana Exonerated: California Man Wrongly Sentenced to 33 Years in Prison for Attempted Murder

A California man was released on Thursday after newly uncovered evidence showed he was not at the scene of a 1989 shooting that led to his conviction on six counts of attempted murder and a stay in prison which lasted 33 years.

Daniel Saldana was sentenced to 45 years in prison after being one of three men convicted of shooting at a car containing six high school students who were mistaken for gang members in Baldwin Park, California on October 27 1989, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. Two of the students were injured and all survived.

But the conviction of Saldana, who had always denied his involvement, was reviewed by prosecutors in late February, after the district attorney’s office said it received a copy of a 2017 parole hearing detailing how the man “was not involved in the shooting”. in any way and was not present. The end of the investigation led Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón (D) to announce that “Saldana was innocent of the crimes for which he was convicted and for which he spent more than 33 years in prison. “.

“As prosecutors, our duty is not simply to obtain convictions but to seek justice,” Gascón said in a press release. “When a person is wrongfully convicted, it is a failure of our justice system and it is our responsibility to right that wrong. We owe it to the person who was wrongfully convicted and to the public that justice be served. »

Saldana’s attorney, Mike Romano, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday morning. Saldana told reporters Thursday at the Hall of Justice in downtown Los Angeles that he “never gave up hope” that he would be exonerated.

“It’s a struggle, every day waking up knowing you’re innocent and I’m locked in a cell, crying out for help,” Saldana told a news conference. “I’m so happy this day has come.”

Saldana’s exoneration is the latest recent case in which someone has been exonerated after decades in prison. A National Exemption Registry database shows that the 17 longest wrongful convictions in US history have occurred in the past decade. Among them is Anthony Mazza, who spent more than 47 years in prison for murder and robbery before being exonerated in 2021, according to the database of the University of California at Irvine, the University of Michigan and the Michigan State University.

Kevin Strickland exonerated after 43 years in one of the longest wrongful conviction cases in US history

A 2020 study by the National Exoneration Registry found that more than half of wrongful criminal convictions are caused by government misconduct. In a study that reviewed 2,400 exonerations between 1989 and 2019, nearly 80% of those cases involved violent crimes. The study also found that police and prosecutors were rarely disciplined for actions that led to a wrongful conviction.

More than half of all wrongful criminal convictions are caused by government misconduct, study finds

At the time of the Baldwin Park shooting, Saldana was 22 and working full-time as a construction worker.

Esteban Rodriguez and five of his friends had left a high school football game in his car when they were approached in Baldwin Park by another vehicle, according to California Supreme Court filings. Prosecutors claimed at the time that Saldana joined Raul Vidal and April Gallegos in the back seat of a Datsun.

After Vidal asked Rodriguez which gang he belonged to, Vidal allegedly rushed the teenager’s car and yelled for a gun, records show. As Rodriguez was pressing the accelerator, prosecutors said, someone fired into the car. Prosecutors argued that Saldana “started shooting.” One of the teenagers’ car passengers, Enrique Zamudio, was shot in the right thigh.

A few weeks later, the victims identified Saldana in a police queue. Although Saldana said he was not at the scene of the incident, he was convicted in 1990 of six counts of attempted murder and one count of shooting an occupied vehicle. Vidal and Gallegos were also found guilty on all counts. An appeals court rejected Saldana’s argument that his conviction was based on insufficient evidence, records show.

Saldana had spent more than 27 years in prison when Vidal told a state parole board that Saldana was not involved in or present during the shooting, according to the district attorney’s office.

“I know it contradicts what the report says, but Daniel Saldana, he’s actually one of my victims,” ​​Vidal said in 2017, according to the Los Angeles Times. “He is actually innocent.”

Gascón said Thursday that information from Vidal’s hearing was never made available to Saldana or his attorneys, and that a Los Angeles County prosecutor present at the hearing did not report the incident. ‘information. It is unclear why the information was not made available to Saldana.

Then the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation turned over a transcript of Vidal’s 2017 parole board hearing to the district attorney’s office, Gascón said. Months after an inquest was opened to re-examine Saldana’s case, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William Ryan announced a declaration of factual innocence on May 11.

Two weeks later, Saldana was a free man.

Romano, Saldana’s lawyer, said in a press release that while he was “disappointing” that information from Vidal’s parole hearing had not been made available sooner, he was grateful that the evidence was finally revealed to exculpate his client.

“We all need to work together to help people like Mr. Saldana who are spending their precious years behind bars for an act they did not commit,” said Romano, chairman of California Governor Gavin’s committee (D). Newsom on the revision of the penal code. .

Although Gascón did not release further details in the case that led to the exoneration, he apologized to Saldana and his family for the time served in prison for a crime he did not did not commit.

“I know it won’t bring back the decades you endured in prison,” he said. “But I hope our apologies bring you some comfort as you begin your new life.”

Dressed in a gray suit and surrounded by his family on Thursday, Saldana was in tears as he hugged his loved ones who supported him throughout his wrongful conviction.

“It’s overwhelming,” Saldana told reporters. “I just knew one day it was going to happen. I’m so grateful and I just thank God, Jesus.

Tom Jackman contributed to this report


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