SAN JOSE (KPIX) — In 2002, a jury found Lionel Rubalcava of San Jose guilty of attempted murder for a drive-by shooting which left a man paralyzed for life.
“I felt like my life was over,” Rubalcava remembers. “I had a feeling like my soul left my body and I felt numb.”
Rubalcava counted each day he was incarcerated. “It was 17 years. one month and five days,” he said.
Rubalcava filed appeal after appeal with his case going all the way to the Supreme Court where his freedom was denied. He lost all hope but then the Innocence Project gave him a second chance at life.
All charges against Rubalcava were dismissed on May 15, 2019. Family members embraced him on the courthouse steps as he was released. Since then, he’s been picking up the pieces of his life.
The reason for his wrongful conviction is listed as “eyewitness error.”
As a result, Rubalcava’s parents lost their family home paying for legal fees and his little boy lost contact with his dad.
“It’s hard when you think about it,” Rubalcava said. “I don’t know how to be a dad. I’m having a hard time with that because I was taken away when he was young. I see my son as a friend. Still working on it.”
The Northern California Innocence Project estimates 4 percent of those serving time for crimes are, like Rubalcava, wrongfully convicted.
“We have helped to free 31 innocent men and women since 2001 and they have collectively lost 457 years to wrongful incarceration,” said Lori Stone with the Northern California Innocence Project.
Rubalcava currently has a job but he envisions opening a restaurant with his family once the pandemic ends. He’s also dealing with the fact that even the small things have changed in his life.
“All the big, flat screens — technology! You’re just, kind of like, whoa!”
While he has family to help him transition to life on the outside, he says he still needs time to heal the emotional scars branded in his memory.
“I blame myself for what happened to me and my family,” he says.
According to a California statute, Rubalcava is due to receive compensation of $140 a day for wrongful incarceration.
But the Northern California Innocence Project says only about 30% of those exonerated get paid.
Rubalcava has filed a federal lawsuit, alleging that investigators from the San Jose police department and the Santa Clara County district attorney’s office violated his civil- and due-process rights.
One of the defendants listed in the lawsuit is current San Jose police chief Eddie Garcia.