Shortly after midnight on September 3, 1990, 29-year-old Francisco Vera and some friends left a fiesta at a church on the Near North Side of Chicago and were attacked by a group of mostly Italian-American youths who had been drinking at a tavern across the street.
Witnesses said that one of the men pulled a board from a bench and began striking one of Vera’s friends and Vera was attacked by two or three others. Vera attempted to fight off the attackers by swinging a key chain attached to the keys to his van.
During the melee, a blue van pulled up and the driver fired two warning shots into the air. When the fracas continued, the driver emerged and fired another shot that hit one of the attackers Joseph Dzialo, in the head, wounding but not killing him. The blue van sped off.
Vera and his friends got into Vera’s van, which was brown and white, and as he attempted to get out of the parking space, the youths smashed windows and hit one of Vera’s friends in the head with a board.
Police were called and two witnesses said the shooter drove off in a blue van.
Within minutes, a blue van fitting the description of the vehicle containing the gunman was stopped for a traffic violation a few blocks from the shooting. The driver, Humberto Beltran, was not questioned about the shooting and was allowed to go on his way.
Police traced the license plate number of the brown and white van to Vera, who told police about the fight. He was then handcuffed and put in a police car.
Two of the Italian-American youths were brought to Vera’s home where they identified Vera’s van and identified Vera as the gunman. Vera was taken to a police station where three more witnesses—two from the group of Italian-Americans and one bystander who happened to be there when the shooting occurred—all identified Vera as the gunman.
Police charged Vera, who never been arrested before, with attempted murder and aggravated battery with a firearm. A gunshot residue test performed on Vera’s hands tested positive for the presence of gunpowder.
Although police considered Beltran a suspect, they did not question him, put him into a lineup or test him for gunshot residue.
Prior to trial, Vera’s attorney and a private investigator showed photos of Vera and Beltran to two of the witnesses who had identified Vera as the gunman. The two men looked so much alike that neither witness could say which man was the gunman.
The investigator, John Rea, tracked down a member of the Italian-American group that police had not interviewed. Shown photos of Beltran and Vera, the man identified Beltran as the gunman.
Under the direction of his lawyer, Vera also secretly taped conversations with Beltran and two others who were in Beltran’s van that night. The two others confirmed on the tape—which was in Spanish—that Beltran was the gunman. When Vera talked to Beltran, Beltran did not deny firing the gun and would only say he didn’t recall what happened.
Vera, who was free on bond, went on trial in Cook County Circuit Court in December 1992. He elected to have the case decided by a judge without a jury.
The evidence was conflicting. The Mexican-Americans who saw the shooting testified for the defense that the gunman was Beltran. Three prosecution witnesses—members of the Italian-American group—testified that Vera was the gunman, but one said the gunman left in a blue van.
The tape recordings were not admitted into evidence. The defense called Beltran, but he invoked his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination and refused to testify.
On December 29, 1992, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Shelvin Singer acquitted Vera of attempted murder, but convicted him of aggravated battery with a firearm, and he was taken into custody. Vera was sentenced to 17 years in prison.
The law firm of Jenner & Block agreed to handle Vera’s appeal for free. On December 4, 1995, the Illinois Appellate Court overturned the conviction, ruling that Vera’s trial attorney had provided inadequate legal assistance.
The court ruled that Vera’s lawyer had failed to lay a foundation for a Spanish-to-English translation of the secretly recorded tapes which led to the translation being barred from evidence. The lawyer had failed to introduce impeachment evidence and also failed to clear up a minor inconsistency that prompted the judge to disregard the testimony of a defense witness who identified Beltran as the gunman.
Vera was released on bond on January 18, 1996.
In February 1998, Vera, defended by attorneys from Jenner & Block, went on trial a second time. Three prosecution witnesses identified Vera as the gunman, although two of them said Vera arrived at the fight in a blue van and then left in his brown and white van.
Three defense witnesses said that Beltran was the gunman. Two more witnesses—including Beltran’s ex-girlfriend—testified that they were watching Vera get punched when the shots were fired and that he did not have a gun in his hand.
In addition, Dzialo’s friends identified a photograph of Beltran as the gunman.
On February 26, 1998, the jury acquitted Vera after deliberating 40 minutes.
Vera, who went to truck driving school funded by anonymous donors and went on to a successful career as a driver, sought a pardon based on actual innocence in 2000. The petition was denied. A second petition was filed and is awaiting a decision.
Beltran was never charged in the shooting.
– Maurice Possley