Daniel Saldana, US man who spent 33 years in prison, freed after evidence finds he wasn't at the crime scene

Daniel Saldana, right, leaves the Los Angeles Hall of Justice with his attorney Mike Romano on Thursday.
Daniel Saldana, right, leaves the Los Angeles Hall of Justice with his attorney Mike Romano on Thursday. Photo credit: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

A man has been freed from prison after serving 33 years for a crime Los Angeles prosecutors now say he didn’t commit, after reviewing exonerating evidence revealed by another prisoner six years ago, the district attorney announced.

Daniel Saldana was sentenced to 45 years in prison after he and two others were convicted of attempted murder in a 1989 incident in which a group of six high school students was fired upon while driving, apparently mistaken for gang members, a news release from Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón’s office said. Two of the students were injured.

But a re-examination of the case this year “determined that Daniel Saldana is innocent of the crimes he was convicted of and spent 33 years in prison for,” Gascón said in a news conference Thursday.

“I never lost hope,” Saldana said at the news conference. “I’m innocent – 100 percent – I’ve been saying that from Day One,” he said.

The exonerating evidence was disclosed during a 2017 parole hearing for one of Saldana’s co-defendants, Raul Vidal, who told the parole board not only did Saldana not participate in the shooting, but he was not present at the time, Gascón said.

The new information had not been shared with Saldana or his attorney, Gascón said.

Vidal was granted parole and released because he was in the US illegally. He was deported, according to Saldana’s attorney. Vidal has not been in touch with anyone related to the case since then.

It wasn’t until February the statement from the parole hearing was presented to Gascón’s office by California’s Board of Parole Hearings, which since 2017 has had new members.

“This information was clearly exonerating information, which the DA’s office was required to turn over to Mr. Saldana or his attorney, but it was not turned over. This failure to investigate this matter in 2017 cost Mr. Saldana an additional six years in prison,” Gascón said.

“This is overwhelming,” Saldana said Thursday. “I just knew that one day this was going to come. I’m just so grateful and I just thank God, Jesus.”

Gascón blamed many people for the delay in justice, including the parole board and the prosecutor who attended the hearing “but apparently did nothing.” That deputy district attorney is no longer with the office, Gascón said.

“Mr. Saldana, you always maintained your innocence and I want to apologize to you once again, to you and your family for this failure,” the district attorney said. “I know that this won’t bring back the decades you endured in prison, and I hope that our apology is some small comfort to you as you begin your new life.”

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in a statement it is pleased the district attorney’s office took action on the case and noted the board “maintains transparency by conducting hearings that include the presence and participation of appropriate parties, including legal counsel for the incarcerated person and a representative from the District Attorney’s Office.”

“Daniel Saldana’s claims of innocence by his co-defendant were made in a setting with the deputy district attorney present – making their office aware of these claims in 2017,” the department said. “If the claims of innocence had been made in a setting without the deputy district attorney present, the Board would have been responsible to refer the matter to the prosecuting agency.”

Saldana will live and work with his family for the foreseeable future, his attorney Mike Romano, director of Stanford Law School’s Three Strikes Project, told CNN.

According to California law, Saldana is entitled to compensation for being wrongfully convicted. “It is to be determined exactly how much, but not an insignificant amount of money,” Romano said.

Romano described Saldana as “strikingly not bitter and angry, but still in quite a bit of shock.” He is adjusting to life on the outside, and over the past 10 days or so since his release, Saldana has ridden a horse, gone to the movies with his nieces, and visited his mother in the hospital.

“He does not feel angry. He feels lucky,” said Romano. “But it is also incredibly heartbreaking and tragic at the same time.”