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Wrongful conviction lawsuit heads toward trial

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SAN JOSE — A wrongful conviction lawsuit from a man incarcerated 17 years for a San Jose drive-by shooting — based on flimsy witness identifications that were later recanted — has been allowed to proceed toward trial by a federal judge.

SAN JOSE, CA - MAY 15: Lionel Rubalcava, a free man for the first time in 17 years, looks up at the sky while embraced by his brother Rolando Rubalcava, Wednesday, May 15, 2019, outside the Main Jail in San Jose, Calif. His attempted murder conviction was dismissed after the Northern California Innocence Project disproved key eyewitness testimony that implicated him in a drive-by shooting in San Jose. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
SAN JOSE, CA – MAY 15: Lionel Rubalcava, a free man for the first time in 17 years, looks up at the sky while embraced by his brother Rolando Rubalcava, Wednesday, May 15, 2019, outside the Main Jail in San Jose, Calif. His attempted murder conviction was dismissed after the Northern California Innocence Project disproved key eyewitness testimony that implicated him in a drive-by shooting in San Jose. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

Lionel Rubalcava, 45, was exonerated with a finding of factual innocence in 2019 after the Northern California Innocence Project — run out of Santa Clara University — took on his case.

Attorneys and students with the project convinced the Santa Clara County district attorney and public defender offices to revisit the conviction, which led to Rubalcava gaining his freedom. A year later, he filed a federal civil lawsuit against the city of San Jose, the San Jose Police Department, and several officers.

On Wednesday, federal Judge Beth Labson Freeman allowed claims against three San Jose police officers at the time — Topui Fonua, Joe Perez and Steven Spillman — to head toward trial, rejecting city legal arguments to toss the lawsuit. Several other officers initially named in the lawsuit have since been dropped from the case, as was the city.

“I’m grateful the court has ruled that the police officers who put me behind bars for 17 years have to answer to a jury,” Rubalcava said in a statement Thursday. “The state declared my actual innocence in 2019, and now there’s no one but the officers whose actions led to my wrongful conviction that are still trying to justify their misconduct.”

Neufeld Scheck Brustin Hoffmann and Freudenberger, a New York-based law firm, is representing Rubalcava. The firm famously secured a massive $13.1 million payout in 2019 from the city of San Francisco to Jamal Trulove. A federal civil jury determined that Trulove was framed by SFPD in the murder of his friend; he served seven years in prison before his conviction was overturned.

“It should have been obvious from the beginning that the police had the wrong person in custody, but instead they fabricated evidence and got witnesses to falsely identify our client,” attorney Anna Benvenutti Hoffmann said in a statement. “We look forward to presenting our evidence to a jury and obtaining vindication for Mr. Rubalcava.”

The San Jose City Attorney’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. Perez and Spillman left the police department in 2018 and 2015, respectively. Public records show Fonua was an active officer as recently as 2022.

The crux of Rubalcava’s claims revolve around allegations that investigating officers ignored ample evidence — including uncertain witness identifications and the fact he was dozens of miles away — from a drive-by shooting on Mastic Avenue in 2002 that paralyzed a man from the waist down.



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