Innocent US man freed after three decades in prison

26 May 2023 04:15pm
Image for illustrative purposes only. - FILE PIX
Image for illustrative purposes only. - FILE PIX

LOS ANGELES, US - A Baldwin Park man was freed from state prison earlier this month after prosecutors and parole officials uncovered years-old evidence that pointed to his innocence in a 1989 shooting, officials announced Friday, reported German news agency (dpa).

Daniel Saldana, 55, was sentenced to 45 years to life in prison in 1990. He had been convicted of attempted murder in an incident in which someone opened fire on six Baldwin Park high school students following a football game, mistaking them for gang members, according to Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón. Two of the students were injured.

Saldana, Raul Vidal and April Gallegos were all convicted of six counts of attempted murder and one count of shooting at an occupied vehicle, records show. But Saldana always maintained his innocence and insisted he wasn't there.

In 2017, Vidal told a state parole board he was responsible for the shooting and that Saldana wasn't present at the time, Gascón said. But that information was not made available to Saldana or his defence attorneys, according to Gascón, who said a Los Angeles County prosecutor was present but did not report the information either.

However, in February, the parole board turned over transcripts from the hearing to the district attorney's office's Conviction Integrity Unit, which launched an investigation that raised questions about Saldana's guilt, according to Gascón. The office joined a motion from Saldana to have his conviction tossed, and Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William Ryan granted a finding of factual innocence on May 11.

Because a deputy district attorney was present when "claims of innocence by (Saldana's) co-defendant were made" in 2017, the parole board did not instigate conversations with LA prosecutors, according to Mary Xjimenez, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

"If the claims of innocence had been made in a setting without the deputy district attorney present, the Board would have been responsible to refer the matter to the prosecuting agency," Xjimenez wrote in an e-mail to the Los Angeles Times.

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"The Board does not investigate claims of innocence except when requested by the governor to do so as part of a clemency application."

Xjimenez did not say exactly what triggered the parole board's actions in February, but noted parole commissioners sometimes review previous transcripts ahead of future hearings on a person's suitability for release.

Saldana was flanked by more than a dozen family members as he spoke during a downtown news conference. He said: "It's been a struggle, every day waking up knowing that you're innocent, and here I am locked up in a cell, not knowing the legal system, not having resources or money."

Saldana was 22 when he was arrested. He said he was working in construction at the time of the shooting and had no idea why he'd been linked to the crime.

Michael Romano, who is the chair of (California) Governor Gavin Newsom's committee on revising the penal code, served as advisory counsel to the Saldana family in recent months.

Romano said Gallegos initially alleged that Saldana was involved in the shooting when interviewed by police, though she never testified at trial.

He said Saldana had been deemed unsuitable for parole at least six times, largely on the basis that he would not admit guilt.

Gascón declined to comment on what other evidence was used to convict Saldana because he said prosecutors are still investigating whether anyone else might be culpable in the case. He declined to name the attorney who failed to act on the potentially exculpatory information from the 2017 parole hearing, only saying that the person no longer works for the office.

Asked if the office had forwarded the matter to the California State Bar for review, Gascón said only that it was being "evaluated". - BERNAMA-dpa

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