Baldwin Park man wrongfully convicted of shooting freed from prison after 30-plus years
A 55-year-old Baldwin Park man was freed from state prison earlier this month after prosecutors and parole officials uncovered years-old evidence that pointed to his innocence in a 1989 shooting, officials announced Thursday.
Daniel Saldana was sentenced to 45 years to life in prison in 1990. He had been convicted of attempted murder in an incident in which someone opened fire on six Baldwin Park high school students following a football game, mistaking them for gang members, according to Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón. Two of the students were injured.
Saldana, Raul Vidal and April Gallegos were all convicted of six counts of attempted murder and one count of shooting at an occupied vehicle, records show. But Saldana always maintained his innocence and insisted he wasn't there.
In 2017, Vidal told a state parole board he was responsible for the shooting and that Saldana wasn't present at the time, Gascón said. But that information was not made available to Saldana or his defense attorneys, according to Gascón, who said a Los Angeles County prosecutor was present but did not report the information either.
In February 2023, however, the parole board turned over transcripts from that hearing to the district attorney's office's Conviction Integrity Unit, which quickly launched an investigation that raised questions about Saldana's guilt, according to Gascón. The office joined a motion from Saldana to have his conviction tossed, and Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William Ryan granted a finding of factual innocence on May 11.
Because a deputy district attorney was present when "claims of innocence by [Saldana's] co-defendant were made" in 2017, the parole board did not instigate conversations with L.A. prosecutors, according to Mary Xjimenez, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
"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," Xjimenez wrote in an e-mail to The Times. "The Board does not investigate claims of innocence, except when requested by the Governor to do so as part of a clemency application."
Xjimenez did not say exactly what triggered the parole board's actions in February 2023, but noted parole commissioners sometimes review prior transcripts ahead of future hearings on a person's suitability for release.
Saldana was flanked by more than a dozen family members as he spoke during a downtown news conference. He said “it’s been a struggle, every day waking up knowing that you’re innocent, and here I am locked up in a cell, not knowing the legal system, not having resources or money."
Saldana was 22 when he was arrested. He said he was working in construction at the time of the shooting and had no idea why he'd been linked to the crime.
Michael Romano, who is the chair of Gov. Gavin Newsom's committee on revising the penal code, served as advisory counsel to the Saldana family in recent months. Romano said Gallegos initially alleged that Saldana was involved in the shooting when interviewed by police, though she never testified at trial.
He also said Saldana had been deemed unsuitable for parole at least six times, largely on the basis that he would not admit guilt.
Gascón declined to comment on what other evidence was used to convict Saldana, because he said prosecutors are still investigating whether anyone else might be culpable in the case. He declined to name the attorney who failed to act on the potentially exculpatory information from the 2017 parole hearing, only saying that the person no longer works for the office.
Asked if the office had forwarded the matter to the California State Bar for review, Gascón said only that it was being "evaluated."
According to a transcript of the 2017 parole hearing provided to The Times by CDCR, the prosecutor who was present that day was Steve Sowders.
"I know this contradicts what the report says, but Daniel Saldana, he's actually a victim of mine. He's — he's actually innocent," Vidal said, according to the transcript, before describing another man he identifies as a gang member as the second shooter.
While members of the parole board expressed concern about Vidal's comments at the hearing, Sowders only refers to it as a "big deal" and asks if this is the first time Vidal is making such comments.
Sowders went inactive with the state Bar in 2021 and moved outside of California, records show. He did not have any contact information listed on the state Bar website.
While Sowders' actions were certainly troubling, they may not have violated ethical norms, according to Laurie Levenson, founder of the Project for the Innocent at Loyola Marymount University. The ethics rule that would require the prosecutor to disclose such information or face discipline from the bar association was not in effect until 2018.
"As prosecutors, our duty is not simply to secure convictions but to seek justice. When someone is wrongfully convicted, it is a failure of our justice system, and it is our responsibility to right that wrong," Gascón said in a statement. "We owe it to the individual who was wrongfully convicted and to the public that justice is served.”
Gascón said it was the fourth exoneration to take place under his administration. Former Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey established the Conviction Integrity Unit in 2015. When he took office, Gascón issued an order loosening restrictions on when the unit could review cases.
The integrity unit received nearly 2,000 claims of innocence during Lacey's time in office, leading to just four exonerations. The amount of post-conviction relief provided by the office at the time lagged far behind other major jurisdictions, including New York, Chicago and Houston.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.