San Jose Pays a Record $12 Million to Lionel Rubalcava, Declared Innocent After 17 Years Behind Bars

City Faced its First-Ever Wrongful Conviction Trial After Judge Rejected Attempt to Dismiss Rubalcava’s Claims Against Police

(SAN JOSE, CA) The City of San Jose today is expected to approve a $12 million settlement in the wrongful conviction case of Lionel Rubalcava, a 46-year-old resident who was incarcerated 17 years for a drive-by shooting he did not commit based on flimsy witness identifications manufactured by police. He was exonerated in 2019.

This is believed to be the largest police misconduct settlement in the city’s history, and the first in a wrongful conviction suit, according to Amelia Green, a partner with the national civil rights law firm Neufeld Scheck Brustin Hoffmann & Freudenberger (NSBHF), which filed a lawsuit in 2020 on Mr. Rubalcava’s behalf.  A trial in the case was scheduled to begin on August 5.

“Given the clear evidence of serious police misconduct we would have put on at trial, the City of San Jose made the right move today,” Green said. “Not only should our client never have been prosecuted – the City should have long ago accepted responsibility for Lionel’s wrongful conviction.”

On March 28, Judge Beth Labson Freeman of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California rejected the City’s attempts to throw out NSBHF’s claims against the three former officers – Detective Joe Perez, Officer Steven Spillman, and Officer Topui Fonua – who fabricated evidence and deliberately misrepresented witness statements that led to Mr. Rubalcava’s conviction, saying: “[A] jury could reasonably infer that Perez, Fonua and Spillman falsified the police reports” that led to Rubalcava’s conviction. The judge also allowed a conspiracy claim to proceed, noting that the three officers “worked closely and in tandem to fabricate witness identifications.”

Responding to news of today’s settlement, Mr. Rubalcava said: “We are supposed to be able to trust police officers for our protection and safety. In my case, the San Jose Police Department singled me out and framed me for a crime I didn’t commit. My family and I are grateful we can now put this nightmare behind us.”

Nick Brustin, an NSBHF partner and member of Mr. Rubalcava’s legal team, said racism was an element in Rubalcava’s 2003 conviction.

“Lionel’s case is yet another example of how racism infects the criminal legal system, in which police too often are willing to prosecute any available young man of color. Neither Lionel nor the victims were served by the corrupt police work that led to an innocent man being prosecuted and the true shooter going free,” he said. “We hope today’s settlement will serve as a wake-up call to the San Jose Police Department.”

According to the 2024 Silicon Valley Pain Index, an annual report of racism and income inequality in the region produced by the San Jose Human Rights Institute, Black and Latino residents continue to struggle with poverty and lower life expectancy.  Recent police audits have also found that Latino residents have been subjected to excessive force by the San Jose Police Department; members of the SJPD are also under fire for exchanging blatantly racist texts about Black residents.

Rubalcava was arrested in 2002 for a drive-by shooting and convicted despite providing powerful alibi evidence – including cellphone tracking – proving he was miles away when the shooting occurred. There was no physical evidence tying him to the shooting, and no motive.

He was exonerated in 2019 with the help of the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara School of Law, which put together information showing that eyewitness identifications were unreliable and that Rubalcava should never have been convicted.

Lionel Rubalcava is represented by the national civil rights law firm Neufeld Scheck Brustin Hoffmann & Freudenberger, LLP, based in New York; his legal team includes partners Nick Brustin, Anna Benvenutti Hoffmann, and Amelia Green and attorneys Katie McCarthy, Christina Matthias, Sophia Villarreal, and Annie Sloan as well as co-counsel Lara Bazelon, Professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law.

Read the L.A. Times’ article on the settlement here.

Read coverage of the settlement by the San Jose Mercury News here (note: content is behind a paywall).

Read Courthouse News coverage of the settlement here.

Read coverage by Bay Area radio station KQED here.

Watch coverage of the settlement by KTVU here.

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