In the three years since his release from prison, Gamalier Rivera has gone to work in the shadows of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, rebuilt a quiet life with his girlfriend, and made visits to his parents’ graves.
Just as quietly, with a few friends and family members’ soft sobs providing the only soundtrack, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Vincent Gaughan Tuesday reversed Rivera’s murder conviction based on the misconduct of disgraced former Chicago police officer Reynaldo Guevara.
“It’s hurting me that my parents aren’t here to celebrate with me, but I’m grateful,” said Rivera, who served 22 years in prison before being released on parole in 2019. His parents died while he was in prison.
The low-key scene at Rivera’s hearing contrasted with the throngs of crowds, cheers, and TV cameras that descended on the Leighton Criminal Courthouse last week as seven other people who claimed Guevara framed them had their convictions thrown out — making them beneficiaries of the first mass exoneration of murder cases in US history.
Rivera becomes the 37th person who has had his murder conviction tossed based on Guevara’s pattern of abusing witnesses and suspects into making false statements or identifications, fabricating evidence, and rigging lineups. In 2017, BuzzFeed News published an investigation identifying at least 52 people from the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Humboldt Park who had accused Guevara of framing them. There are now more than 70 people who say Guevara pinned murders on them. Guevara has repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent when questioned under oath about his investigations.
The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office did not oppose Rivera’s plea to clear his name. State’s Attorney Kim Foxx told BuzzFeed News in an interview last week that her decision not to fight Guevara defendants in court is in the interest of rebuilding trust in communities most devastated by violence, and thus, public safety.
“When we do stuff like this, I think it's incredibly important that we talk about the history of wrongful convictions, the history of false confessions, the history that we've seen in this county, as we do our work to improve public safety,” she said. “If I lived in Humboldt Park, and I knew that detective Guevara was out there putting cases on people, or that's the allegation about him, why would I then come and testify for you on a case. Or if I'm a victim of a crime? Why would I report that crime?”
The murder investigation involving Rivera, now 47, dates back to the night of April 22, 1996, when a young man named Jesus Ramos waited in a red Dodge Colt parked in an alley. The driver of the car, Javier Cruz, had gotten out of the car to allegedly sell drugs to another carload of people who had pulled up behind them. As the transaction took place, a white Chevy Blazer with tinted windows sped through the alley. A passenger in the Blazer shot at the Dodge Colt. Witnesses said the shooting unfolded in a matter of seconds in the dark. They ducked at the sound of the gunfire and could only describe the shooter as a male, likely Latino, with a haircut featuring shaved sides.
Before he died, Ramos had said that the gunman had tried shooting him previously. Ramos’s family members pointed to another rival gang member as the likely shooter with whom Ramos had “beef.”
Instead, Guevara picked up the case nearly two months later and directed his attention away from the person Ramos’s family suspected. For reasons unknown, he used a photo of Rivera, who did not have a shaved haircut, and built a photo lineup around him. On June 10, 1996, one of the surviving witnesses identified Rivera among the pictures. Two other witnesses who were in custody for unrelated crimes also identified Rivera in a live lineup.
Guevara wrote in his police reports that Rivera had been free to choose his placement anywhere in the lineup, but Rivera claimed that Guevara waited until his attorney went to lunch and then ordered him to stand in a specific place while she was gone.
By the time the case went to trial, photos of the lineup had gone missing. Rivera’s attorney argued that the photos hadn’t been misplaced, but instead destroyed.
Four witnesses from the alley testified that Rivera shot Ramos. Prosecutors asked for the death penalty. Rivera, however, didn’t plea for mercy in order to eschew the ultimate penalty. Instead, he told evaluators determining his fitness for the death penalty that “all I know is that I’m convicted for something I didn’t do.”
Since Rivera’s conviction, a slew of scientific evidence has undermined the credibility of eyewitness testimony. Even without any allegations of police misconduct, researchers have discovered that many factors including the stress of a violent encounter and lighting lower the reliability of eyewitness identification. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 74% of all wrongful convictions have involved mistaken eyewitness identifications.
Witnesses in multiple Guevara cases have repeatedly testified that Guevara told them whom to select from lineups — even if they couldn’t see the offender.
Rivera had three alibi witnesses for the night of the crime who would have testified that he was spending the evening at his home, quietly.
“What hits home with me is that Gamalier is just another victim who has just quietly fell through the cracks for nearly 30 years,” said one of his attorneys, Josh Tepfer of the Exoneration Project. That quiet, he said, “highlights the everyday corruption of this criminal justice system here in Chicago and the Chicago Police Department and Guevara in particular.”
Rivera will most likely file a civil lawsuit against Guevara and the city of Chicago.
Rivera’s suit would be the 15th pending against Guevara. Four other cases that have been resolved have already cost the city more than $46 million. Meanwhile, Guevara collects more than $80,000 a year from his police pension. His alleged crimes, Foxx told BuzzFeed News, are beyond the statute of limitations, and by extension, her reach.
Meanwhile, Rivera capped off his exoneration by reporting to a double shift at the airport.