A California man imprisoned for 16 years for sexual assault was exonerated Monday after DNA tests showed another man committed the crimes, USA Today reports. Luis Vargas, 46, broke down when an LA Superior Court judge granted a petition to release him from his sentence of 55 years to life for three sex crimes. The move came after DNA evidence linked those assaults to a serial attacker known as the Teardrop Rapist, so labeled for having a teardrop tattoo under his eye, the AP notes. That man, who was never caught, is suspected of having committed about three dozen crimes in the LA area. Vargas had matched assailant descriptions, and he caught investigators' eye because he had a faded teardrop tattoo under his left eye and a 1992 rape conviction involving his girlfriend at the time, reports the Los Angeles Times.
"You can sentence me to all the years you want, but ... that individual that really did these crimes might really be raping someone out there," Vargas warned a judge before he was sentenced in 1999. In 2012, Vargas reached out to the California Innocence Project and asked to use DNA techniques to examine samples on the clothing of one of his alleged victims, per the Times. The DNA matched that of the victim and the Teardrop Rapist. The three victims had positively IDed Vargas as the perpetrator, but an Innocence Project attorney tells the AP it was a "shaky witness" case, an assertion the LA district attorney's office backed up in a recent court letter that said there were discrepancies and uncertainties in their identification of the rapist, the Times notes. Vargas still has to clear up some immigration issues before he's fully released, but he hopes to be home by Christmas. (Read more DNA test stories.)