Gerardo Cabanillas swore on his child’s life that he was innocent when he was arrested on suspicion of sexual assault at the age of 18, his attorney said. Yet, he confessed anyway when a South Gate police detective allegedly promised he’d be given probation as long as he admitted to the crime.
That false promise left Cabanillas in prison for nearly three decades, until DNA evidence showed someone else had committed the crime, officials said.
Flanked by his family, attorneys and Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón, Cabanillas stood in the downtown Hall of Justice as an innocent man Tuesday, as officials discussed his bittersweet recently vacated conviction.
“Justice has been a very long time coming … if we can even call it that at this point,” said attorney Alissa Bjerkhoel, who represented Cabanillas through the California Innocence Project.
Cabanillas was accused of a brutal robbery at gunpoint and sexual assault of a young woman in South Gate in 1995, officials said. The 18-year-old had been involved in a separate robbery in the area and matched the description given by the woman, so law enforcement officials assumed the crimes were linked, Gascón said Tuesday.
During a seven-hour interrogation during which Cabanillas didn’t have access to an attorney, South Gate Det. Jack Lee Alirez promised the young man he would be released on probation if he admitted to what he was being accused of, according to Bjerkhoel and Gascón. Instead, Cabanillas was charged with 14 felonies, convicted and sentenced to a de facto life sentence, court records show.
Bjerkhoel said there were obvious problems with the case from the beginning. There was no physical evidence linking Cabanillas to the assault, she said. The victim pointed out Cabanillas from a police six-pack of suspect photos but never identified him in court, through a preliminary hearing and two trials, court records show.
The victim’s boyfriend said he identified Cabanillas only after a detective showed him a picture and told him, “Cabanillas was the person they got and that he had confessed,” records show.
Cabanillas denied all wrongdoing for decades, and his case was finally taken up by the California Innocence Project in 2017, Bjerkhoel said. This year, DNA evidence not only cleared Cabanillas, but also identified another suspect, who was already in prison awaiting trial for murder, Gascón said.
That suspect, whom prosecutors declined to identify Tuesday because the investigation is continuing, went on to commit additional sexual assaults, Gascón said.
“When the wrong person is convicted of a crime, not only do we make a mockery of the system … but the actual assailant remains free,” Gascón said.
Cabanillas declined to speak during Tuesday’s news conference. Attempts to contact Alirez were unsuccessful. The South Gate Police Department said it planned to issue a statement on the case later Tuesday.
Tiffiny Blacknell, director of communications for the district attorney’s office, said it wasn’t clear whether prosecutors would file charges against the new suspect, as it was unclear whether the victim would want to move forward with charges.
Improving L.A. County’s conviction review unit was one of several planks on which Gascón based his reform-focused run for district attorney in 2020. While some questions have been raised about his ability to deliver on his large-scale promises of post-conviction relief, at least five people with highly questionable convictions have been exonerated under Gascón.
Source: LA Times