'It felt unreal:' San Jose man freed in drive-by shooting after 17 years in prison

A San Jose man wrongfully convicted in a 2002 drive-by shooting that left a man paralyzed has been exonerated and freed after 17 years in prison.

Lionel Rubalcava, 40, became a free man Wednesday thanks to the work of the Northern California Innocence Project.

"Unnreal," he said after being released. "Yeah, it felt unreal. I asked the officer, 'is that door really gonna come open?' He said yes. It was a shocker." 

Attorneys with the Innocence Project based at Santa Clara University took Rubalcava's case about five years ago and in January presented evidence to prosecutors that disproved eyewitness accounts.

The Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office re-interviewed the victim, who told prosecutors he was not confident about his identification of Rubalcava. He admitted that he only caught a glimpse of the shooter's face.

Last month, Rubalcava's conviction was reversed but he was freed Wednesday, when prosecutors performed the final step to officially drop charges against him.

“We can prove that the case against him has collapsed,” Assistant District Attorney David Angel said in court Wednesday, later expressing “profound regret” over Rubalcava’s case on behalf of his office.

Rubacalva’s trial attorney argued that the defendant wasn’t even in San Jose when the drive-by shooting occurred on Mastic Street on April 2, 2002. Rubalcava said that he was on a date in Hollister, and offered cell phone tracking evidence, as well as testimony from the woman who accompanied him on the date.

Innocence Project attorney Paige Kaneb told the Mercury News the main reason Rubalcava became a target of the investigation was because he was driving on the same street two days later and pulled over to talk to a woman standing outside the house where the shooting occurred. A neighbor saw Rubalcava and his car and called police. A few days later, Rubalcava was arrested, picked out of the photo lineup and charged in the shooting.

When he exited the San Jose Hall of justice, his friends and family were there to hug him and take videos of the momentous occasion. 

KTVU's Rob Meecham contributed to this report.