Listening to someone’s story can lead to freedom

Joaquin Ciria spent 32 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. On the day he was set free, it was almost too much to take in.

Francine Kiefer/The Christian Science Monitor
Joaquin Ciria stands at Westmoor Park in Daly City, California, on May 18, 2022. Mr. Ciria was wrongly imprisoned for 32 years.

Joaquin Ciria spent 32 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Each night, during his first few years behind bars, he closed his eyes and cried. He told himself that when he opened them again, it would all be a dream, and he would be home with his son.

Mr. Ciria’s nightmare ended on April 20, when he was released. His was the first case reviewed by the Innocence Commission, an independent panel of experts set up by San Francisco’s former district attorney, Chesa Boudin, to correct wrongful convictions. Mr. Boudin was ousted in a June 7 recall election.

I recently met Mr. Ciria in the course of reporting on the recall. We sat under a tree where I listened to the story of this polite and generous man. He was born in Cuba and came to America as a teenager during the Mariel boatlift, when Jimmy Carter was president. He was arrested in San Francisco for the murder of a friend, based on a rumor started by the real killer. Under police pressure, a witness perjured himself.

It’s very easy to lose your mind in prison, Mr. Ciria told me. It happens when you give up hope. But he decided to try to save himself. He began visiting the law library. He also took every program the prison offered, from meditation classes to Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous. He didn’t have any addictions, but he wanted to help people who did.

The best course, he said, was Bridges to Life. Crime victims visit offenders in prison and share their stories in a search for healing, accountability, repentance, and forgiveness. It helped him to forgive the man who had falsely testified against him – a man he knew, and who had so consumed his thoughts that, for a time, Mr. Ciria stopped eating.

“How long can I go on with this poison inside me?” he asked himself. “When you hate somebody, without forgiving, it’s going to kill you. You have to surrender that to God.”

His spiritual journey went from utter rejection of God to complete surrender. After that, he said, things began to turn around. The mother of the man in the neighboring cell became his second momma. She introduced him to his wife. His neighbor’s lawyer, Ellen Eggers, became his lawyer. She dug into his case and, together with the Northern California Innocence Project, brought it to the commission. A judge vacated his conviction in April.

On the day he was set free, it was almost too much to take in. His leg shook such that he thought he might crumple. He went first with family and supporters to a Cuban restaurant. Now, he and his wife are making up for lost time, visiting Yosemite and the beach. In July, they will visit Texas so he can meet her family. California pays exonerated people $140 for each day in prison – more than $1.6 million in his case – and covers four years of housing costs.

Now Mr. Ciria wants to help free other innocent people. He wants to hear their stories, because when somebody listens to you, he says, “it’s a miracle.”

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