In a move that could signal a mass exoneration in one of the biggest policing scandals in US history, prosecutors in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office will be conducting a “comprehensive review” of convictions tied to retired Chicago detective Reynaldo Guevara, according to a letter obtained by BuzzFeed News.
Guevara, who was the subject of a 2017 BuzzFeed News investigation, has been accused of framing more than 50 people — mostly young Latino men from Chicago’s Northwest Side — for murders they did not commit. Those convicted and their advocates allege he beat people into making false confessions or pressured witnesses to claim they saw people at murder scenes when they did not.
At least 20 people have already been exonerated in cases where Guevara was at the helm, but at least 14 remain in prison; at least 16 have completed their sentences but still have convictions on their records. Others have died behind bars.
Now, the director of Cook County’s Conviction Integrity Unit, Nancy Adduci, has asked lawyers to submit the names and case numbers of people who’ve been convicted of crimes investigated by Guevara, according to a letter sent late Wednesday to criminal defense attorneys, advocates for the wrongfully convicted, and public defenders across Chicago.
Adduci wrote that the review is part of the state’s attorney’s “mission to seek justice equitably” and build trust in the criminal justice system by remedying “convictions that should not stand.”
Advocates for the wrongfully convicted said the move is a giant step toward justice. Josh Tepfer, an attorney with the University of Chicago’s Exoneration Project, said convincing prosecutors to take up a review of murder convictions is “not something that’s easy to do in any sort of scenario.” But, he added, “we showed them things that cannot be explained, examples of perjury, and examples of clear, uncontradicted framing of people that there’s no explanation otherwise.”
A spokesperson for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office referred BuzzFeed News to its letter when contacted for comment. A lawyer for Guevara did not immediately return a request for comment. In the past, Guevara has declined to comment on his cases; when asked about them under oath, he has asserted his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Though advocates have been pushing the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office to do a top-to-bottom review of Guevara’s cases for years, Tepfer said that in early March, he and his colleagues from the Exoneration Project met with top deputies from the office — just before the coronavirus shuttered much of the country.
In that meeting, Tepfer said, he and his colleagues laid out what they say are hallmarks of Guevara’s misconduct — from allegations that the detective told witnesses whom to select from a lineup to claims of his physical abuse.
Many of those findings were previously laid out in BuzzFeed News’ investigation. Not long after finishing their presentation, Tepfer said, he received a phone call from one of State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s top deputies, saying the office wanted to develop a strategy to ensure justice in these cases.
Civil rights attorney Jennifer Bonjean, who has won exoneration for a handful of Guevara defendant cases and is currently arguing the innocence of three more, said that when the detective’s cases are examined in isolation, the evidence of his alleged misconduct isn’t always obvious. But when considered collectively, she said, shocking patterns are readily apparent.
“I hope there’s some teeth in it,” said Bonjean of the state’s attorney’s letter. “These cases take a lot of work, a lot of initiative, and I hope there’s the manpower, the commitment behind that statement. ”
Individual defendants have had success in court. A judge said Guevara told “bald-faced lies” when he testified in a 2018 hearing for two men seeking to overturn their convictions. In 2016, an appeals court wrote that the detective had engaged in “alarming acts of misconduct.”
The review won’t be the first time the Conviction Integrity Unit has taken a sweeping look at convictions connected to alleged police misconduct. Beginning in 2017, Foxx’s office has tossed more than 90 convictions tied to Chicago Sgt. Ronald Watts, who has since been convicted of trying to steal drug money in an undercover sting and was accused of planting drugs on residents in the housing project he patrolled. The Watts dismissals, also led by Tepfer, were among the most noteworthy mass exonerations in recent memory.
“It’s about time that they get these guys home and look into these cases,” said Esther Hernandez, whose two sons are behind bars for a 1997 murder for which they say Guevara framed them. “It’s been far too long.”