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Armando Serrano

Other Cook County Cases with Official Misconduct
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About 5:30 a.m. on February 5, 1993, 28-year-old Rodrigo Vargas was fatally shot as he sat in his van outside his home at 1838 North Springfield Avenue in Chicago. Several shots were fired through the closed driver’s side window, which was next to the curb on the one-way street. His wallet, which contained $190, was undisturbed.

The murder was still unsolved when detectives arrested Francisco Vicente on May 14, 1993 and charged him with three armed robberies and a strong-armed robbery. Chicago police detective Reynaldo Guevara and his partner, Ernest Halvorsen, used Vicente to falsely convict 20-year-old Armando Serrano and 25-year-old Jose Montanez of Vargas’s murder.

By the time Serrano and Montanez were exonerated on July 20, 2016, both men had served nearly half of the 55-year prison terms imposed on them. And during that same time period, Guevara became the subject of investigations for using perjured testimony and physical violence during interrogations to obtain confessions and false convictions.

Serrano was arrested in June 1993 and Montanez was arrested a month later. Both were charged with first-degree murder and attempted robbery. A third man, Jorge Pacheco, also was charged with murder and attempted robbery in the case. All three men denied any involvement in the crime.

They went to trial in Cook County Circuit Court on October 18, 1994 and chose to have their case decided by Judge Michael Bolan without a jury.

The key witness against them was Vicente, who testified that hours after Vargas was murdered, he was standing on a street corner and spoke with Montanez, Serrano and Pacheco. Vicente said they admitted they had killed Vargas because they believed he was carrying a large sum of money. Vicente said that the defendants told him they saw Vargas in a gas station with a lot of cash the day before and followed him intending to rob him, but chose not to because he was with his wife and children.

Vicente admitted that he had made a deal with the prosecution to testify after agreeing to plead guilty to the robbery charges in return for a sentence of nine years in prison. He testified that prior to the trial he lived in a witness protection quarters where he was allowed “home-cooked” meals, visits with friends, including his girlfriend, and given cigarettes, Nike track suits and a Walkman.

Vargas’s widow, Wilda Vargas, also testified and said that the day before Vargas was murdered, she and Vargas stopped at the gas station where he made a purchase and displayed a roll of about $350 in cash. She said that Montanez, Serrano and Pacheco were in a car at the station and that car followed them almost all the way home. During her testimony, she frequently was uncertain or gave an account that differed from her initial statement to police on critical details: who was driving, who the passengers were, and which man walked into the station. She also testified that she later identified Montanez’s car as the vehicle that followed them from the station.

The trial judge, Michael Bolan, ultimately found Wilda Vargas’s testimony unreliable.

Detective Halvorsen testified that Timothy Rankins, who had been arrested on a separate robbery charge, also had implicated Montanez, Serrano and Pacheco in the murder. According to Halvorsen, Rankins was with them when the crime occurred and identified Serrano as the man who actually shot Vargas after Pacheco and Montanez yelled at Serrano to kill Vargas when he resisted their attempt to rob him.

Halvorsen also testified that Rankins had disappeared and could not be located to testify.

On October 21, 1994, Judge Bolan convicted Montanez, Serrano and Pacheco of first-degree murder and attempted murder. However, at the sentencing hearing, Bolan vacated Pacheco’s conviction, saying the evidence was insufficient to sustain the conviction. Montanez and Serrano were each sentenced to 55 years in prison.

In 2004, the Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern University’s School of Journalism, under the direction of professor David Protess, was investigated the case. Students interviewed Vicente and he said that he had testified falsely—that he had no knowledge of who killed Vargas—and that he had been “coerced” and “beaten” by Detectives Guevara and Halvorsen.

By 2005, Serrano and Montanez had filed post-conviction petitions to vacate their convictions based on the convictions. That same year, Guevara retired. A year earlier, Juan Johnson had been exonerated of a murder after evidence showed that Guevara had coerced three witnesses into falsely identifying Johnson as the killer.

In 2012, Jacques Rivera was exonerated of a murder after evidence showed that Guevara had coerced a 13-year-old boy into falsely identifying Rivera as the killer.

In May 2013, after lengthy delays and prolonged re-investigation by Jennifer Bonjean, attorney for Serrano, and Russell Ainsworth of the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago, attorney for Montanez, an evidentiary hearing was held on the petitions for a new trial. Guevara and Vicente both refused to testify and invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

The defense presented evidence that Timothy Rankins—the man that Halvorsen testified had been present when the murder occurred and had said that Montanez, Serrano and Pacheco were involved—had recanted numerous times. A sworn statement from Rankins said that the reason he did not testify at the trial was not because he couldn’t be found, but because he had told the prosecution that the detectives had physically abused him until he falsely accused the defendants. The evidence showed that Rankins recanted repeatedly after the defendants were convicted as well—starting in 1999.

Rankins said in his statement that Guevara and Halvorsen gave him photographs of Serrano, Montanez and Pacheco and a written statement and told him to study the materials. Then, after more beating, they told him to sign the statement. Rankins also said that he and Vicente were housed in the same prison block for protected witnesses and received cigarettes, money, and the option of privately hosting female guests.

Wilda Vargas was prepared to testify at the hearing that Guevara took her to Montanez’s car and told her it was the car used by her husband’s killers and that ballistics evidence showed that a bullet hole in the car was made by the same gun that killed her husband—a claim that was false. The judge, however, excluded her testimony.

The defense had also discovered that Vicente had testified falsely about his treatment by the prosecution. In fact, Vicente had received about a year less than the nine years he testified he was to receive under his plea agreement.

Despite all this evidence, the petitions were denied.

Meanwhile, pressure from defense attorneys and activists alleging that Guevara was responsible for numerous false convictions—some compared Guevara to Chicago’s Lt. Jon Burge, who oversaw a group of detectives who tortured numerous defendants into falsely confessing to murders—prompted the city of Chicago to ask the law firm of Sidley Austin LLP to conduct an independent investigation of Guevara’s cases.

In 2015, the Sidley Austin report was completed. It concluded that Montanez and Serrano were “more likely than not actually innocent.” During that investigation, Rankins said that (contrary to Halvorsen’s testimony at trial) no in-person or photographic lineup was used in the Vargas murder investigation. Instead, “there were three photos and they (Guevara and Halvorsen) came and told me, ‘This is who killed this man, this is what you’re gonna say.’”

The report also determined that Vicente was involved in two other murder prosecutions in which he claimed that the defendants confessed to him. The report concluded that those two defendants—Roberto Almodovar and Robert Bouto—were also likely innocent.

In June 2016, the Illinois Appellate Court vacated the convictions of Serrano and Montanez and ordered a new trial.

The court said that Serrano and Montanez presented “profoundly alarming acts of misconduct in the underlying investigation and prosecution, all of which warrant closer scrutiny by the appropriate authorities.” The court said that any other result than a reversal and new trial would “work a palpable injustice.”

On July 20, 2016, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges “in the interest of justice” and Montanez and Serrano were released from prison.

In November 2016, both men received certificates of innocence and each was awarded $222,900 in state compensation.

In December 2016, Kimberly Foxx, the newly elected Cook County State’s Attorney, took office after pledging to review other cases involving Guevara.

In April 2017, Bonjean filed a federal lawsuit on Serrano's behalf seeking $60 million in damages. In June 2017, Ainsworth filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Montanez seeking damages for his wrongful conviction.

That same month, Almodovar's conviction, as well as that of his co-defendant, William Negron, were vacated and dismissed after Foxx said the prosecution no longer had confidence in the convictions. Meanwhile, Bouto, who was still in prison, was still challenging his conviction. One of the lead prosecutors in three of the cases, Matthew Coughlin, later became a Cook County Circuit Court Judge.

In November 2017, Jose Maysonet became the seventh person to be exonerated based on misconduct by Guevara. Maysonet, who was serving a sentence of life in prison without parole, falsely confessed after a 17-hour interrogation punctuated by beatings and torture by Guevara.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 7/23/2016
Last Updated: 11/20/2017
State:Illinois
County:Cook
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempt, Violent
Reported Crime Date:1993
Convicted:1994
Exonerated:2016
Sentence:55 years
Race:Hispanic
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:20
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No