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DNA testing frees man wrongly imprisoned for nearly 30 years

Gerardo Cabanillas was released 28 years after he was wrongfully convicted of robbery, kidnapping, sexual assault and other crimes.
DNA testing frees man wrongly imprisoned for nearly 30 years
Posted at 12:58 PM, Sep 27, 2023

A man in California was freed after DNA testing proved him innocent of crimes that kept him imprisoned for nearly three decades.

Gerardo Cabanillas was released last week, 28 years after he was wrongfully convicted of robbery, kidnapping, sexual assault and other crimes in April 1996, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office said. 

"Today, we acknowledge a grave injustice that has resulted in the unjust more than 28-year incarceration of Mr. Cabanillas," District Attorney George Gascón said in a press release. "Upon thorough reexamination of the evidence and a comprehensive review of the case by my office's Conviction Integrity Unit, it has become abundantly clear that a serious error was made. I extend my deepest apologies to Mr. Cabanillas for the miscarriage of justice and the failure of our criminal legal system."

On Jan. 16, 1995, a man and woman were robbed at gunpoint by two men, who both also raped the woman, according to Gascón. She reported immediately and underwent a sexual assault examination. Two days later, an armed man robbed another man and woman in an attempt to steal a vehicle. Given certain similarities, the prosecution determined the incidents were committed by the same people. 

Days later, a then 18-year-old Cabanillas was arrested because he generally matched the description of one of the offenders. No official evidence was collected that tied Cabanillas to the crimes, and the fingerprints obtained from the car did not match him.

The then-teen found himself in an interrogation room with an experienced detective, who eventually got him to admit guilt after many denials. He was charged with 14 felony counts.

"Mr. Cabanillas always maintained that on the date of his arrest, he was coerced by the investigating detective into giving a false confession with a promise that he would be released on probation," Gascón said during a press conference.

At trial, Cabanillas insisted he was innocent. The sexual assault victim and her boyfriend said in testimony that while Cabanillas looked like one of the perpetrators, they were not certain it was him.

Cabanillas was handed a sentence amounting to life in prison.

It wasn't until 2019 that things started to shift.

Cabanillas' lawyers from the California Innocence Project filed a motion to test the DNA evidence from the sexual assault victim in 1995. None of it matched Cabanillas.

"After a thorough review and investigation of both the evidence presented at trial and new evidence uncovered by Mr. Cabanillas and the CIU, the District Attorney's Office lost confidence in the convictions of which Mr. Cabanillas was sentenced," the district attorney's office said.

The Conviction Integrity Unit asked Judge William C. Ryan to vacate Cabanillas' conviction, find him factually innocent, and permanently release him from prison. Ryan vacated the conviction and found Cabanillas innocent that same day. 

"When the wrong person is convicted of a crime, not only do we make a mockery of our system, but more importantly, an innocent person goes to prison, and the real assailant continues to be out there, free to hurt other people," Gascón said.

SEE MORE: DNA Evidence Frees California Man Imprisoned For Decades

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