THE BLOG
06/18/2013 05:45 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2013

Tables Turned at Wrongful Conviction Hearing

The anticipation was palpable in Courtroom 307 of the George N. Leighton Criminal Court Building on Monday as Judge Maura Slattery Boyle ascended to the bench. Two prisoners had waited 20 years for this moment: a showdown with the Chicago cop they claimed had framed them, and the jailhouse snitch he had allegedly recruited for the job.

"Petitioner calls [Det.] Reynaldo Guevara," said Jennifer Bonjean, Armando Serrano's lawyer. Serrano and his co-defendant, Jose Montanez, eyed Guevara intently as he took the stand at an ongoing hearing to determine whether the prisoners should win new trials.

The retired detective had aged considerably since they last saw him at their 1994 trials for the murder of Rodrigo Vargas, shot as he left his Humboldt Park apartment for work. Guevara's wavy black hair had thinned and greyed, while his ample girth now rolled over his belt buckle. The trademark bling was gone. Guevara had lost his swagger, Serrano and Montanez thought.

But he was the same man who, they claimed in court documents, fabricated evidence that unjustly sent them to prison. Finally, the tables were turned in recent years when Guevara was accused of coercing witnesses to falsely testify in their case -- and more than 40 others.

Serrano and Montanez wondered what he could possibly say to rebut the damning evidence presented so far at this hearing on their claim of innocence. Turns out, not much.

"Mr. Guevara, are you currently employed?" Bonjean asked.

"I take the fifth amendment," Guevara replied.

"Did you ever coerce [witnesses] to provide false testimony against Mr. Serrano and Mr. Montanez?"

"I remain my Fifth Amendment rights."

"Did you give [a jailhouse snitch] money to offer false testimony?"

"I remain my Fifth Amendment rights."

Bonjean wanted Guevara to respond to questions about his alleged brutality that led a neighborhood teen to falsely swear he saw Serrano and Montanez commit the murder, about accusations by the widow of the murder victim that Guevara had blatantly lied to recruit her as a witness, and about the deals he offered a heroin addict to tell a tall tale that the duo had confessed to him. There also was the matter of a $21 million jury award against the city for Guevara's wrongdoing in another case. But Guevara persistently took five.

When prosecutors had no questions, Guevara lumbered from the courtroom, averting the glares of more than 20 family members of the prisoners.

After a break, Francisco Vicente, the State's star witness at the original trial, was called to testify -- for the defense. Vicente had alleged in 1994 that Serrano and Montanez admitted shooting the victim during an armed robbery. A decade later, he repudiated his testimony in a sworn statement to journalism students at Northwestern University, saying he had only become the State's witness because prosecutors gave him a sweet deal - six years total for three armed robberies that could have landed him behind bars for life. Guevara had brokered the deal, Vicente told the students, and regularly slipped him cash, cigarettes and clothing.

On the stand, Vicente's wiry frame, darting eyes and shaved head made him look like a hairless rodent. If he felt trapped, it was because the State's Attorney's Office has adopted a new policy -- to selectively bring perjury charges against government witnesses who recant their trial testimony. There was only one way out for Vicente -- to follow Guevara's lead in answering questions.

"Did you give false statements to Det. Guevara?" asked Russell Ainsworth, Jose Montanez's lawyer.

"I would like to exercise my constitutional right," replied Vicente.

"Which one?" the judge interjected.

"Uh, the Fifth," Vicente answered.

"Did you testify falsely at the trial of Armando Serrano and Jose Montanez?"

"I plead the Fifth."

Prosecutors asked about his original statements to law enforcement and if he had been "induced" by the Northwestern team to repudiate his trial testimony, but Vicente monotonously declined to answer any further questions. He was excused by Judge Boyle and scurried from the courtroom out a back door.

As Monday's proceedings came to a close, Bonjean renewed her claim of prosecutorial misconduct, revealing new evidence from the state's attorney's files that she said proved wrongdoing by the trial prosecutors. Bonjean had alleged in court pleadings that assistant state's attorney Matthew Coghlan "suborned perjured testimony" at the trial, and fellow prosecutor John Dillon "secretly and fraudulently secured" almost a year of additional time off for Vicente to which he was not entitled -- and failed to disclose this deal to the defense.

But prosecutors vigorously objected to hearing the claim, and Judge Boyle closed the colloquy by saying, "At this time, I do not see anything lending itself to prosecutorial misconduct."

The judge set July 10 as the next date to hear additional evidence in the case before she rules on the motions for new trials.

Outside the courtroom, Bonjean compared Det. Guevara to disgraced Comdr. Jon Burge, incarcerated for lying about torturing suspects on the South Side. She also wondered if cronyism was the real reason for not considering the evidence against the prosecutors: Coghlan is now a criminal court judge whose courtroom is down the hall from Boyle's, while Dillon is still an assistant state's attorney.

To sum up, two decades after the murder convictions of Armando Serrano and Jose Montanez, the lead detective and the lead snitch invoked the Mob's oath of silence while allegations of prosecutorial misconduct were suppressed.

It is a case of injustice and concealment that is staggering, even by Cook County standards.

This is the fifth in a series of articles. For the others, see Police Scandal Eludes Media Radar, Wrongful Conviction Hearing a Revelation, Why Prosecutors Fear Widow's Testimony in Wrongful Conviction Case and A Tale of Two Snitches.