July 20, 2016 – CHICAGO — A Cook County judge on Wednesday ordered the release of two men who spent more than 23 years in prison for murder, but have long insisted they were framed by a Chicago police detective who is at the center of several wrongful conviction probes.
In a brief court hearing Wednesday, Judge LeRoy Martin agreed to the prosecutor’s office request to vacate the convictions of Jose Montanez, 49, and Armando Serrano, 44, who were serving 55-year sentences for the 1993 murder of Rodrigo Vargas, slain in what authorities said was an armed robbery. The men have been behind bars for more than 23 years, and more than a decade after the prosecution’s star witness recanted his testimony.
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The move by the office of Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez comes after a state appellate court ruling issued last month found that “profoundly alarming acts of misconduct in the underlying investigation and prosecution” led to the men’s convictions.
It was an about face for Alvarez, who initially resisted a recommendation issued last year by former federal prosecutor Scott Lassar that the prosecutor reopen six cases, including the murder convictions of Montanez and Serrano, that were investigated by police detective Reynaldo Guevara. The cop, who retired more than a decade ago, has faced dozens of allegations of framing or beating confessions out of suspects during his time as detective in a predominantly Latino neighborhood on the city’s Northwest Side. Lassar’s firm, Sidley Austin, was commissioned by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office to review the allegations.
“Anita Alvarez has indicated a new direction with these Guevara cases,” said Russell Ainsworth, an attorney with the University of Chicago’s Exoneration Project who represented Montanez. “We are now no longer viewing these men as murderers but as the innocent men that they are. Their cases need to be reexamined. There are dozens and dozens of people who are innocent and currently incarcerated because of Detective Guevara’s conduct.”
Facing the prospect of a retrial, Alvarez’s office said in a statement that prosecutors “determined that we are unable to meet our burden of proof at this time, so we believe that it is in the best interests of justice to dismiss this case.”
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