On the evening of September 9, 1989, Ricardo Fernandez was beaten to death during a birthday party at the Caguas Nightclub on the west side of Chicago, Illinois. Many of the 200 people attending the party were members of four different street gangs. Around 11 p.m., a fight broke out between members of two of the gangs and quickly escalated. Shots were fired and everyone ran into the street. Once outside, several fights broke out, one of which involved four men beating Fernandez.
The next day, Edwin Gomez was picked up by Area 5 police and questioned about the murder. There, according to Detective Reynaldo Guevera, Gomez identified Juan and Henry Johnson and two others from a photo array. Later that evening, Gomez picked out Juan Johnson, Henry Johnson, and Hector Franco in a lineup. On September 28, he picked out Pedro Cordero in a lineup. The Johnsons, Franco, and Cordero were indicted for murder.
The prosecution’s case rested on the testimony of three purported eyewitnesses who had been present at the club. The bench trial for the four defendants began on January 11, 1991, before Cook County Circuit Judge Henry Singer and stretched over nine months, including several lengthy recesses. On September 28, 1991, Judge Singer found Juan and Henry Johnson guilty of murder and sentenced them both to 30 years in prison. The codefendants, Hector Franco and Pedro Cordero, were acquitted.
Following their convictions, on May 7, 1992, the Johnson brothers’ new attorney, Dan Stohr, filed post-trial motions, which included a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. The motions were denied. On June 11, 1992, the Johnsons filed a supplemental post-trial motion and in the alternative, a post-conviction petition, but Judge Richard Egan, who had been assigned to the case, denied both.
That decision was appealed, and on May 15, 1995, the Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the convictions, but remanded with directions to the trial court to hear the defendants’ post-conviction petition. At the hearing, Stohr introduced testimony by four additional eyewitnesses that the Johnsons were not involved with the murder. But, the court denied the post-conviction petition on the merits.
Finally, in May 2002, the appellate court reversed the denial of post-conviction relief, vacated the convictions, and remanded for a new trial. The Johnsons were released from prison six months later after being confined for more than 11 years. They were offered a deal to plead guilty and be sentenced to time served with no mandatory supervision. Henry Johnson, who had re-established relationships with his children and secured a job, opted not to risk another trial and reluctantly accepted the deal. Juan, on the other hand, rejected the deal.
On February 23, 2004, at his retrial, a jury acquitted Juan Johnson. A federal jury later awarded Johnson $21 million in damages from the city based on evidence that the original three eyewitnesses recanted their testimony and revealed that they were coerced by Detective Reynaldo Guevara to identify the Johnson brothers. The City of Chicago appealed and, during the appellate process, settled the case for $16.4 million.
— Center on Wrongful Convictions and Maurice Possley