Bay Area/ San Jose/ Crime & Emergencies
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Published on June 19, 2024
San Jose Agrees to Record $12M Settlement for Lionel Rubalcava Wrongfully Convicted of 2002 ShootingSource: Google Street View

San Jose has agreed to a $12 million settlement with Lionel Rubalcava, who spent 17 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit. The City Council will deliberate on whether to approve this settlement, which if passed, would be one of the most significant wrongful conviction settlements in the city's history. Released from prison in May 2019 after the Northern California Innocence Project disproved crucial testimony against him, Rubalcava had been convicted of attempted murder related to a 2002 drive-by shooting, according to KTVU.

Rubalcava filed a lawsuit against the city and three of its police officers, accusing them of misconduct that led to his conviction. His lawyers contend that the officers ignored clear evidence of Rubalcava’s innocence and assert that Detective Joe Perez, along with Officers Steven Spillman and Topui Fonua, fabricated elements of police reports. This alleged fabrication created the appearance that eyewitnesses had positively identified Rubalcava as the perpetrator. Recently, the San Jose Police Department's focus on Latino residents has included audits indicating that they face excessive force by officers, according to Courthouse News Service.

The Bay Area News Group has reported this settlement as the largest payout San Jose has seen for a police misconduct claim. "This wasn't an isolated incident of one officer making a mistake," Rubalcava's attorney Nick Brustin said. "They should have known, or did know, that Lionel was innocent." His firm, Neufeld Scheck Brustin Hoffmann & Freudenberger, has highlighted the serious implications of police misconduct in his case, stating that the evidence they were prepared to present at trial would have been compelling, as per KTVU.

U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman recently denied the city's attempt to protect the officers with qualified immunity and pushed forward claims of withholding evidence and malicious prosecution. In her ruling, the judge did not side with the city's argument that claimed no ill will was borne towards Rubalcava by the officers and also rejected the notion that evidence of eyewitness misidentification had been overlooked. The settlement now awaits the final nod from the San Jose City Council, with the impact of racism within law enforcement, as highlighted by the police audits and findings of the Silicon Valley Pain Index, casting a long shadow over the decision.