CHICAGO — Nothing about the police report immediately signaled to the lawyers digging through boxes of papers that they’d just discovered a bombshell.
Yet when the lawyers dusted off the report — hidden with thousands of other documents for decades in a storeroom and revealed last year — and compared it with the original case file from the 1991 murder of Edwin Fred, they found a document that they say proves Chicago Police Detective Reynaldo Guevara fabricated a police report to frame an innocent teen for Fred’s murder, suppressed evidence pointing to another person as the killer, and then lied at the teen’s trial.
The teen, Demetrius Johnson, was convicted by a judge in 1992 and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He will be in court Wednesday to ask for a new trial, or for prosecutors to evaluate the police reports and toss his conviction.
“It’s just the most striking example that I’ve ever seen of police misconduct,” said Joshua Tepfer, who is Johnson’s lawyer and who has helped exonerate approximately five dozen people. “This is a new level because now we have documentary proof in a way that’s just irrefutable.”
Guevara, the subject of a 2017 BuzzFeed News investigation, has been accused by more than 50 people of framing them for murders they say they didn’t commit. At least 19 people have been exonerated in cases investigated by Guevara. A circuit court judge has accused Guevara of telling “bald-faced lies” while under oath, and an appellate court said he engaged in “alarming acts of misconduct” in another case.
But until Johnson’s lawyers discovered the hidden documents in the Fred murder case file, exonerations of Guevara defendants have hinged on witness recantations. This is the first instance, defense lawyers say, in which police records support what dozens of people have alleged for decades: that Guevara framed them.
A lawyer for Guevara did not respond to requests for comment. When asked about the lineup reports last month during a deposition, the retired detective invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, as he has repeatedly over the years when asked about any allegations he framed people.
A spokesperson for the city of Chicago declined to comment.
The documents came to light after Johnson’s lawyers were allowed to review police files kept hidden in a warehouse. The lawyers petitioned for the right to examine these files as part of another case involving another man who claimed Guevara framed him and was later exonerated. The so-called street files contain officers’ notes, theories, observations, and records of interviews. In many cases, these records were not included in the main case file, and thus were never turned over to defense attorneys in trials.
It’s not just Johnson’s case that could be affected, civil rights lawyers say. The street files, to which civil rights lawyers have been battling access, may contain evidence that could exonerate more innocent people in or implicate others who were never charged.
In a court papers filed last week in Chicago, Tepfer and his colleagues from the civil rights firm Loevy & Loevy claim that Guevara created a fake report, which purported to show that witnesses failed to identify any suspects in a lineup during the investigation of Fred’s murder. Loevy & Loevy assists BuzzFeed News on matters unrelated to this case and other civil rights issues.
That wasn’t true, lawyers say. A document discovered recently by attorneys shows another detective on the case filed a report, which stated that at least one witness identified the alleged killer in a lineup hours after the shooting. That man was arrested near the scene but never charged. Instead Guevara let him go and pursued 15-year-old Johnson as the killer, though Johnson had two alibi witnesses and no other evidence tying him to the crime.
Tepfer and his colleagues argue in court papers that the hidden report, written by Detective William Erickson, never made it into the case file; it did not reach the lawyers defending Johnson in his murder trial either — despite laws that require that exculpatory evidence must be turned over to the defense. Instead, the court papers claim, Guevara testified at Johnson’s trial that no witness had made any identification in the lineups — a fact contradicted by Erickson’s report.
Erickson died in 2018.
Tepfer argues that had Johnson’s defense attorney known about Erickson’s report, he would have used it in his arguments at trial. Transcripts show the attorney did not.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s murder conviction remains on his record, awaiting the state’s attorney’s office decision whether to drop it.
A spokesperson from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the case, citing pending litigation.
Records show that Guevara collects over $77,000 per year from a taxpayer-funded pension.
Johnson, now 44, was released in 2004 and works with youth in Chicago, coaching a variety of youth basketball teams and supervising games during the most dangerous times of the evening and night.
“I’m so proud of myself for surviving that pain,” Johnson said.
But surviving the pain doesn’t mean escaping it.
“As a 15-year-old being grabbed off the street, I was just baffled,” he said. “I spent night after night looking in the mirror, asking, ‘Why, why, why?’”
His mother died several weeks after his conviction. A judge denied him a pass to attend her funeral. Another inmate struck him in the head with a chair, cracking his skull. At 17, he was moved from juvenile detention to an adult prison.
He said his criminal record has affected his ability to find work or continue his education, although he did earn several vocational certificates while behind bars.
Having the opportunity to clear his name, Johnson said, “would mean the world" to him.