Two years ago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel apologized for the torture of suspects by Chicago police commander Jon Burge and promised to “reconcile our past.”
If he was serious, he should release the report done for the city on possible wrongful convictions resulting from investigations by disgraced former detective Reynaldo Guevara.
And if she’s learned anything from the Burge scandal, State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez should facilitate the judicial review of questionable convictions in Guevara’s cases, instead of opposing every effort to reopen them.
According to numerous court filings, Guevara framed suspects by beating confessions out of them or, more often, by manipulating and intimidating witnesses. He didn’t use electric shocks like Burge and his men did, but the end result is the same—innocent men who’ve spent decades of their lives behind bars.
Hired by the city and paid nearly $2 million, attorneys at the Sidley Austin law firm, working under former U.S. Attorney Scott Lassar, referred six murder convictions to the state’s attorney for review, the Better Government Association reported. According to Buzzfeed, Lassar found at least four cases of men who are probably innocent but are still in prison.
Yet after a brief review, the state’s attorney’s office decided to continue to oppose reopening the cases. For its part, the city won a court order keeping the Lassar report under wraps.
There are some big questions about that report. The first one is how attorneys came up with just four cases of probable wrongful convictions. When family members of Guevara victims, most living in Humboldt Park, came together nearly 20 years ago to review his record, they identified about 40 cases where no physical evidence linked defendants to crimes and witness statements or confessions were questionable. Lassar reportedly reviewed about 70 cases.
The question is underscored by William Negron’s case. He isn’t listed among the likely innocent, even though his co-defendant Roberto Almodovar is. Both were identified by the same eyewitnesses, one of whom later recanted, saying he made the ID after Guevara showed him photos of the suspects. A recent Appeals Court ruling noted that “testimony cast doubt on Guevara’s method of obtaining identifications,” and said “if the jury had known about Detective Guevara’s history of improperly influencing witnesses,” it might have discounted the evidence.
But if Almodovar was framed, attorney Russell Ainsworth asks, how could Negron be considered guilty?
Beyond that, if Negron was improperly ruled out for review, how many other cases should have been more strongly considered?
The next question concerns Lassar’s conclusion that there’s no evidence of a widespread pattern of wrongdoing by Guevara, at least according to an Emanuel spokesperson.
It’s not hard to make out a pattern. Start with the four cases where Lassar thinks suspects were likely framed, with two more deserving of review by prosecutors. Add the cases of Juan Johnson and Jacques Rivera, whose convictions were overturned. In Johnson’s case, a federal jury awarded him $21 million—including $15,000 in punitive damages from Guevara himself—after finding that the detective bullied witnesses into identifying Johnson in a 1989 murder.
Throw in Mario Flores, who was released after Gov. George Ryan commuted his sentence in 2003, and Salvador Ortiz, who settled for time served after he won a new trial in 2009. It starts to look like a pattern. And it’s a pattern that’s confirmed in statements from witnesses in dozens of other cases, as compiled by attorneys from Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions.
Such questions will remain—along with the impression that the Emanuel administration is part of an ongoing cover-up—until the report is released.
For the past couple years Guevara has consistently been citing the Fifth Amendment, refusing to answer questions in hearings on his old cases. “Legally, what it means to take the Fifth is, ‘I believe that answering these questions will subject me to criminal prosecution,’” said Jennifer Bonjean, who’s representing several Guevara victims.
What she finds more remarkable is that when Guevara pleads the Fifth, “judges think it’s no big deal.” They continue to rule against motions seeking to reopen convictions, ignoring the fact that the investigating officer is unwilling to testify about the case.
Bonjean sees a community of interest among police officers, prosecutors, and judges, many of whom are former prosecutors. (One is Judge Matthew Coghlan, whom Bonjean has accused of prosecutorial misconduct in a Guevara-related case.)
This is a criminal justice system that functions as if protecting its own players were more important than protecting the innocent from the abuse of power—and more important than questions of right and wrong.
Ruth Pena says she’s amazed at how long it takes for wrongfully convicted individuals to win their day in court—and the decades they spend in prison because the justice system refuses to correct its errors.
She and other relatives of Guevara’s victims formed Comite Exigimos Justicia in the late 1990s, after her brother Angel Rodriguez was convicted of murder in a case where Guevara played a crucial behind-the-scenes role. (Rodriguez’s conviction was reversed in 2000.) As she recalls, her mother was working as a teacher’s assistant and found a lunchroom lady in her school whose son had also been framed by Guevara. Quickly they became aware of more families with similar stories.
At first they met as a support group—then they started meticulously reviewing police reports and court records. They found dozens of questionable cases, none with any physical evidence linking the defendant to the crime. They compiled a fact sheet for the media, spoke at an Amnesty International conference, and in 2003 met with someone at the U.S. Attorney’s office. “He seemed really interested, but he didn’t do a damn thing,” she says now.
Two of the first cases taken on by CEJ were those of Roberto Almodovar and Armando Serrano—both listed as probably innocent by Lassar, and both rejected for review by Alvarez. “It’s 20 years later, and there are still so many people who haven’t gotten out,” she says.
She’s thinking of the human beings behind bars and their long-suffering family members. But we should also consider the credibility and integrity of our justice system.