CHICAGO — Seven people who said that a Chicago detective framed them for murder had their convictions tossed Tuesday in the first mass dismissal of murder charges in modern US history.
The six men and one woman were part of a group of at least 70 people who had claimed for decades that Chicago Police Department detective Reynaldo Guevara — along with his partners and other officers — had coaxed witnesses into making false identifications, pressured child witnesses into pointing out the wrong suspects, invented anonymous tips, and battered suspects into making false statements.
A request by prosecutors to vacate the conviction of an eighth person was stymied by a judge, who called for an additional hearing next week in that case.
The seven people whose convictions were dismissed on Tuesday had spent 174 years in prison combined, with all but two of them — Carlos Andino and Alfredo Gonzalez — having served their complete sentences. Thirty-six people have now had their convictions vacated based on Guevara’s misconduct.
In 2017, a BuzzFeed News investigation chronicled Guevara’s alleged abuses and tactics in and around the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Humboldt Park. Since then, the Illinois Appellate Court has deemed Guevara “a malignant blight” on the Chicago Police Department. His misconduct has cost the city a combined $46 million in damages in four federal civil rights cases, and 14 more are pending. Guevara has repeatedly declined to comment to BuzzFeed News and in past court proceedings has invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
“Even in cases where we still have questions about guilt, where we are not affirming actual innocence, the taint of detective Guevara is such that we cannot stand behind them any further,” Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx told BuzzFeed News.
The marathon of hearings on Tuesday was a day of reckoning decades in the making. At the Leighton Criminal Court Building, Ruthie Peña, who in 1999 organized a group of mothers, sisters, aunts, and wives of those allegedly framed by Guevara, watched prosecutor Carol Rogala walk from courtroom to courtroom asking for dismissals. Peña at times choked back tears of joy and at others, tears of anger.
“I feel proud that a group of people who were not trained to be lawyers or officers back more than 20 years ago, we were able to pinpoint the systemic abuse by several officers,” Peña said. “It’s also angering that it took this long with a lot of lawyers and a lot of organizers screaming wrongdoing, and we were ignored until they could no longer ignore us. Lives were ruined. Those people could never get their lives back. They could never see their kids grow up or teach them how to ride a bike or go to their graduations. Some might never have families.”
But it was as close to justice as Peña, along with the dozens of other families who have for years marched through the streets, picketed police stations, and attended monthly police board meetings, are going to get. And it started at 9 a.m. in courtroom 201.
9 a.m.: Courtroom 201, Judge Neera Walsh presiding
Carlos Andino, 49, logged into Zoom from the Stateville Correctional Center. In less than four minutes, his 28-year ordeal to prove he wasn’t guilty of murder was over.
It had started on a dark street corner in 1994 as three siblings — Kathy, 10, Kimberly, 11, and Christopher Smith, 14, — stood outside the doorway to their apartment building, waiting for their mother to buzz them in.
Then came the shots. A man using a nearby payphone had been approached by a stranger demanding his pager and his money. When the man refused, the robber turned murderer, firing a fatal shot at point-blank range. Matt Dibicki, a Polish immigrant, was dead.
Police alleged they received an anonymous tip naming Andino as the shooter. But a key detail was off: Two of the Smith siblings said the shooter had a teardrop tattoo under his eye, which Andino didn’t. Yet the Smith kids identified him as the shooter anyway. Kathy later claimed that Guevara, the detective on the case, came to her home and pointed to a photo of Andino, telling her he was the killer. An abundance of social science research shows children are more susceptible to suggestion than adults. Largely based on these identifications that didn’t match their initial description, on Aug. 18, 1994, police arrested Andino.
Andino hired a lawyer to represent him. That lawyer failed to mention that he also represented Guevara in a range of civil cases. Andino said he remembered “begging” his attorney, Richard Beuke, to interview other witnesses who would have testified that he wasn’t the shooter, but Beuke did “nothing to investigate the case,” according to a court filing. (Beuke didn’t immediately respond to BuzzFeed News.)
After a brief conversation about whether the state attorney’s office had been able to notify the murder victim’s family, who were believed to be in Poland, prosecutor Carol Rogala told the court she would be sending an investigator to the Stateville prison to hand deliver Andino’s release papers.
9:36 a.m., Courtroom 204, Judge Domenica Stephenson presiding
A handful of people who’d previously been exonerated in cases involving Guevara made their way through the snaking security line on the first floor for the hearing of Louis Robinson.
Daniel Rodriguez, Gerardo Iglesias, Demetrious Johnson, and Thomas Sierra, who had served a combined 77 years of wrongful imprisonment, shuffled into the gallery.
The judge had previously overseen parts of Iglesias’s case, in which an informant said Guevara beat him into claiming that he collected three separate murder confessions in three different cases from total strangers.
Robinson’s case dated back to the June 20, 1996, drive-by killing of Kelly Valdez. She had stopped to visit with her boyfriend at a gas station when a car drove by and opened fire.
Witnesses described both a light-skinned and dark-skinned shooter. When Guevara brought Robinson in for a lineup, he heard an officer he believed to be Guevara ask, “Is that him?” The person viewing the lineup said, “That’s not him.” Robinson then said he heard detectives tell the witness, “If you don’t say that’s him, we’re going to give you the murder because we think they was trying to kill you. So as far as we’re concerned, you’re the reason why your girlfriend is dead.”
Robinson said his lawyer didn’t believe him when he described what he’d overheard.
For decades, few people in power believed any of the claims against Guevara. State’s attorneys who were tasked with approving charges and trying cases repeatedly failed to push back on Guevara’s use of alleged informants and questionable confessions.
“These frame-ups were sloppy because they could be,” said Jennifer Bonjean, an attorney who has represented Guevara defendants. “No one was going to stop them.”
In Tuesday’s hearing, the judge denied the request to toss out Robinson’s murder conviction, instead opting to set another round of hearings. Robinson has been in prison for 24 years.
Iglesias, who’d been there himself, shook his head as the judge issued her denial.
9:49 a.m., Courtroom 205, Judge Sophia Atcherson presiding
Across the hall, even more exonerees filled the gallery.
“Alfred Gonzalez is present via Zoom,” Atcherson announced.
Gonzalez has been serving a life sentence in a 1990 double homicide of two brothers. Witnesses on the scene described hearing voices they believed belonged to Black men — Gonzalez is Latino — and repeated references to a man named Lulu Dog. The victims’ sister knew Lulu Dog and provided a phone number and home address to detectives. Nothing in the records shows Guevara or any of his colleagues followed up on the lead. Instead, Gonzalez and a codefendant, Jose Maysonet, were charged and convicted.
A judge ordered Maysonet’s exoneration in 2017.
Gonzalez, now 64, has been in prison for 32 years — the longest incarceration of any of the seven people who had their cases dismissed on Tuesday.
Illinois appellate courts have said that Guevara engaged in “alarming misconduct” as far back as 2016, and families and attorneys of Guevara defendants have criticized Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx for not having moved more quickly on the cases.
“We wanted to do it right,” Foxx told BuzzFeed News on Tuesday, noting that six attorneys had been assigned to review Guevara’s casework. “So it wasn't slow for slow sake. It was done with all deliberate speed.”
Gonzalez’s daughter, Maria, who was 3 years old when her father was arrested, muffled sobs when the judge announced that “based on my review, the petitioner has established a violation of his constitutional rights.”
“The convictions are no longer in effect,” Atcherson continued. “He will be released on this case as soon as possible.”
By then, eight other Guevara exonerees and their families crowded the courtroom gallery. A roar of applause erupted.
“Thank you, Lord,” called Blanca Gonzalez, one of the women who began protesting Guevara’s policing in the early 2000s.
But Atcherson wasn’t done.
David Lugo was next. Two witnesses had been pressured into identifying Lugo —then identified as David Colón — in the 1991 murder of 16-year-old Michael Velez, who was riding his bike when he was shot.
Atcherson had already overturned Lugo’s conviction a month ago, but she now granted his certificate of innocence.
For the last five years, he’s been out of prison and working as a truck driver. But now, he’ll be free from having a murder conviction appear on his record when applying for everything from jobs to housing to any social benefits he might need.
Atcherson flipped through a stack of papers related to Lugo’s case.
“I want to make sure everything has been dismissed,” she said as she perused the paperwork.
After a few more turns of the page, Atcherson made her decision.
“The case is over.”
The judge then turned to her computer monitor: “Last, but not least,” she said. “Mr. Jaime Rios.”
Rios’s case dated back to the June 27, 1989, shooting of Luis Morales, who was killed while walking out of an alleyway in northwest Chicago. After Guevara brought him in on suspicion of Morales’s death, Rios claimed that Guevara struck a witness in the head by placing a flashlight near his skull and using it to hit Rios. It’s a claim that’s been repeated by other Guevara defendants.
Meanwhile, Guevara’s fellow officer allegedly pushed Rios’s head into a table and threatened to take away his young son if he didn’t make an incriminating statement: All he had to do was say he was present at the scene of the murder, and Rios wouldn’t lose custody of his son. It’s a threat other Guevara defendants and witnesses, particularly mothers, claim the detective used as a way of coercing statements from them.
Rios made the incriminating statement and ended up serving 18 years in prison.
Though the judge overturned his murder conviction on Tuesday, Rios’s case hits at something deeper. Guevara wasn’t alone. Other officers have been accused of similar misconduct or failure to intervene. Police supervisors failed to discipline him.
Foxx said her office recognizes that Guevara wasn’t a bad apple but perhaps part of a rotten orchard.
“And the orchard is big,” Foxx said. “But there are identifiable names that people are working on as we speak around those patterns.”
10:11 a.m., Courtroom 305, Judge Alfredo Maldonado presiding
Marilyn Mulero stood before the judge in a white cardigan and black, studded heels.
She had been a 21-year-old mother of two toddlers in 1992 when Guevara and his longtime partner, Ernest Halvorsen, questioned her for more than 20 hours about the murders of Hector Reyes and Jimmy Cruz, who were fatally shot in a park restroom.
Mulero’s codefendant, Jackie Montanez, eventually confessed to being the person who shot Reyes and Cruz.
On Tuesday, Rogala, the prosecutor, explained the state no longer opposed Mulero’s petition for a dismissal. The judge then overturned Mulero’s murder conviction.
“At this juncture, there’s no need to go forward,” Maldonado said.
By 10:14 a.m., more than two dozen exonerees and their families snaked through the stairwells of the Chicago courthouse.
“It’s like a group tour,” Bonjean said. “All that’s missing was a tour guide with a little flag to keep everyone together.”
The scene of the group jumping from courtroom to courtroom, dismissal to dismissal, was one none of the lawyers had seen before.
10:36 a.m., Courtroom 203, Judge Diana Kenworthy presiding
By this point in the day, Rogala had her requests to the judges down, as if reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
“That’s a lot you said there,” Kenworthy responded when Rogala wrapped up her series of pleas.
This hearing was on the case of Nelson Gonzalez, who had served 22 years for murder before being released on probation in 2017. Gonzalez had long maintained that he had been in another state the June 1993 evening when a group of Latino men near his home had been beaten with a baseball bat, one fatally. Gonzalez alleged that Guevara coerced witnesses to identify him in a lineup.
On Tuesday, the judge overturned the conviction.
“I will happily sign that order,” Kenworthy said.
Gonzalez’s mother, Blanca Gonzalez — who’d been protesting for years and also attended other defendants’ hearings on Tuesday — and sister, also named Blanca, sobbed as the judge signed the paperwork. Over the years that Nelson had fought to prove he was not guilty, they’d remortgaged their family home as many times as they could and eventually couldn’t keep up with payments. The bank took their home.
The judge looked out on the gallery overflowing with exonerees, some of whom had faced financial hardships similar to the Gonzalezes.
“It’s quite a community that’s coming,” Kenworthy said. “I hope you’re able to provide some support to one another.”
Then she spoke directly to Nelson, now 52 years old.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know you have every right to be bitter, but I hope you’re not so you can enjoy the rest of the time you have left.”
11:02 a.m., Courtroom 506, Judge William Hooks presiding
When the judge called Johnny Flores forward, Guevara defendants and their families filled seven rows of benches on both sides of the courtroom.
“At what point are we kicking people out?” a sheriff’s deputy assigned to the courtroom asked four fellow deputies who had come in to patrol the crowd.
The people of Humboldt Park, like Flores and his family, were used to police presence. Maybe not police service, but presence.
Flores’s family members wore T-shirts with images of more than a dozen Guevara defendants and the words “Wrongfully Convicted” on them. Some people silently sobbed as the hearing was underway.
Flores had served 20 years in prison even though the key witness in his case had confessed to being high and drunk at the time of murder. The judge acknowledged how many years had gone by as he overturned the conviction on Tuesday.
“It’s something you’ve been waiting for for a long time,” Hooks said.
At 11:05 a.m., the mass dismissal of murder cases, the first in modern US history, was over.
But the fight will continue, attorneys for the Guevara families assured the throng of media gathered at the courthouse.
“This is a community who will not stop until every other Guevara victim has been released,” Exoneration Project attorney Russell Ainsworth told the cameras. “Today is a start, and we are not done until everyone is brought home.”