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San José to Pay $12 Million to Exonerated Man in Wrongful Conviction Suit

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A younger man poses outside next to an older man (his father).
Lionel Rubalcava (left) with his father outside the Santa Clara County Main Jail Complex in San José on May 15, 2019, following his release. Rubalcava will receive a $12 million payout from the city of San José to settle a wrongful conviction lawsuit he filed in 2020 after serving 17 years in prison for a drive-by shooting for which he was later exonerated. (Courtesy of Northern California Innocence Project)

A San José man will receive a $12 million settlement from the city after he was imprisoned for 17 years for a drive-by shooting for which he was later exonerated.

The San José City Council voted Tuesday to approve the payout to Lionel Rubalcava, 46. The settlement is among the largest payouts for a police misconduct claim in the city’s history. The vote was 8–1, with the lone vote against the move cast by Councilmember Bien Doan.

He was exonerated in 2019 with the help of the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University School of Law, which found that eyewitness identifications were unreliable and that Rubalcava should never have been convicted. Later that year, he was declared “factually innocent” by the Santa Clara County Superior Court.

Rubalcava sued the city in 2020, claiming he was wrongfully convicted. His attorneys said the conviction was based largely on the identifications San Jose police garnered by threatening, pressuring and coercing witnesses, including the victim of the shooting.

“We are supposed to be able to trust police officers for our protection and safety,” Rubalcava said in a statement on Tuesday. “In my case, the San José 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.”


There was no physical evidence or motive tying Rubalcava to the 2002 shooting on Mastic Street, south of downtown, that left a man paralyzed. He was convicted despite his strong alibi, backed by cell phone data, that he was headed to a date in Hollister when the shooting occurred.

Rubalcava’s attorneys asserted in the lawsuit that police investigators “fabricated police reports” that claimed three witnesses identified him “instantaneously and without any police suggestion.” In reality, “none of the witnesses independently made positive identifications of anyone, let alone the innocent Rubalcava,” his attorneys argued.

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Witnesses also later admitted that police pressured them to make their statements, the lawsuit claimed.

Nick Brustin, one of Rubalcava’s attorneys, called his client an amazing and resilient person.

“With all the things that he has been through, a lot of people would have lost hope and would be angry. He’s none of those things,” Brustin said. “He came out of prison and completely rebuilt his life. He’s got two businesses, he’s rebuilding his family, and he’s taking care of his parents. So to be able to see this resolve for him is just an incredible feeling.”

The city attempted to have the entire case thrown out, but a federal judge in March allowed the lawsuit against San José Police Detective Joe Perez and Officers Steven Spillman and Topui Fonua, who investigated the case, to go to trial.

“A jury reasonably could infer that Perez, Fonua, and Spillman falsified the police reports for the purpose of depriving Rubalcava of constitutional rights,” U.S. District Court Judge Beth Labson Freeman noted in her March order.

“The city strongly believes the officers who investigated this case did so objectively and fairly,” San José City Attorney Nora Frimann said in an email on Tuesday after the vote. “Unfortunately, police officers often become the object of blame and are really the only people in the system against whom a lawsuit can be brought.”

Frimann said because the monetary awards in wrongful conviction cases “have the potential to have a devastating impact to city budgets, it is prudent for cities to manage these claims by resolving them as best they can.”

Brustin said the money compensates Rubalcava for all he has been through and will help him readjust to his new life.

“We have to acknowledge that the city has finally done the right thing and has compensated Lionel, and that sends a strong message both on his innocence and what happened to him,” Brustin said. “But for many years, they fought tooth and nail, wouldn’t concede his innocence, attacked him and his character in ways that just were not helpful.”

Brustin said the large payout should be painful for the city and should push its leaders to openly assess their internal practices to identify systemic issues that may have affected other cases.

Frimann said in the years since the Rubalcava’s criminal trial, “investigative techniques and practices have evolved and changed, but not in response to this case.” She said the review by the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office that led to Rubalcava being found factually innocent “did not conclude that police acted wrongfully.”

Santa Clara University law professor Linda Starr, co-founder of the Northern California Innocence Project, who oversaw research on Rubalcava’s case, said she is extremely happy this long and arduous chapter in his life is finally over, though she is cognizant that no amount of money can give back so much lost time.

“I think that’s a wonderful thing,” Starr said. “It’s time for him to be able to just live his life.”

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