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Roberto Almodovar

Other Cook County Exonerations
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Shortly before 1 a.m. on September 1, 1994, a car pulled up in front of an apartment building in the 4900 block of West Cortland Street in Chicago, Illinois and a passenger fired several gunshots at a group of people. Amy Merkes and Jorge Rodriguez, both 18, were killed. Twenty-year-old Jacqueline Grande was shot in the back but survived. Kennelly Saez, 19, dove behind a parked car when the shots erupted and escaped injury.

Later that day, Chicago police detective Reynaldo Guevara was assigned as the lead investigator. Guevara, who was already investigating the murder of Carlos Olan, a member of the Insane Dragons street gang, theorized that the shooting was committed by members of that gang to retaliate for Olan’s death. Rodriguez and Saez were members of the Maniac Latin Disciples street gang, which was feuding with the Insane Dragons.

Guevara went to the hospital where Grande was being treated for her gunshot wound and showed her two photo lineups. One contained the photograph of 19-year-old Robert Almodovar and the other the photograph of 17-year-old William Negron—both members of the Insane Dragons gang. Guevara said that Grande identified Almodovar as the back seat passenger who fired the shots and Negron as the driver.

Guevara arrested Almodovar on September 11, 1994, and Negron the following day. Both were placed in lineups. Saez and Grande, who had been released from the hospital, identified them.

Almodovar and Negron were charged with first-degree murder, first-degree attempted murder, and aggravated battery.

Prior to their trial, Grande told an attorney then representing Almodovar (the attorney did not ultimately represent Almodovar at trial) that when she was in the hospital, Guevara came to her with the photographs of Almodovar and Negron and said, “These are the guys who did it.” In addition, Saez told Almodovar’s attorney that he had not seen the gunman or the driver of the car because it was dark outside and he was smoking marijuana.

In November 1995, Almodovar and Negron went to trial in Cook County Circuit Court. Grande and Saez both testified and identified Almodovar as the gunman and Negron as the driver. Grande denied that any officer had told her to identify Almodovar and Negron, and Guevara denied telling her whom to identify. Saez said that he had identified Almodovar and Negron because he was ordered to so by a high-ranking member of his gang.

No physical or forensic evidence connected Almodovar or Negron to the shooting.

Almodovar testified in his own defense that he worked an 11-hour shift at Farley’s Chocolate Company on August 31, 1994 and left work at 5 p.m. He then took a bus to Wilbur Wright College where he attended a class until 10 p.m., and then took a bus home where he remained the rest of the night. Family members testified and corroborated Almodovar’s account.

On November 30, 1995, the jury convicted both men of the first-degree murders of Rodriguez and Merkes and the attempted murder and aggravated battery of Saez and Grande. They were each sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Their convictions were upheld on appeal. Post-conviction motions for a new trial were subsequently filed claiming that Saez had recanted his identifications of both men. Saez testified at a hearing in 1999 that Guevara and Grande came to him with photos of Almodovar and Negron and told him they were the gunman and driver. He said he identified them because they told him they were the ones involved.

Saez testified, “I wanted whoever was responsible to pay. I just trusted their judgment, you know, but they could be right—they could be wrong. I am here to say I don’t know. I cannot say that I can identify these guys. I can’t and I won’t.”

The post-conviction motion also claimed that Almodovar’s trial attorney had provided an inadequate legal defense by failing to call Almodovar’s previous lawyer who had taken the statements from Grande and Saez before the trial. The motion also faulted Almodovar’s trial attorney for failing to obtain records from his job and the college bolstering Almodovar’s claim that he was at work and then at school on the night of the crime.

The motion to vacate the convictions, however, was denied.

In 2010, Almodovar filed another post-conviction petition—without a lawyer—citing a Chicago Tribune newspaper article that implicated detective Guevara in a widespread pattern of official misconduct that was marked by coercing witnesses to falsely identify people as perpetrators of crimes. The article detailed how witnesses had accused Guevara of coercing them to falsely accuse Juan Johnson, who had been convicted of murder and was later exonerated after 11 years in prison. The witnesses had testified against Guevara in Johnson’s successful federal lawsuit, which, after a jury awarded Johnson $21 million in damages, the city of Chicago settled for $16.4 million.

Almodovar also attached a sworn statement from Saez in which he described how Guevara and Grande told him to identify Almodovar and Negron. In addition, the petition contained an FBI report citing a confidential informant who said that Guevara “accepted bribes to change positive or negative identifications during line-ups for murder cases.”

That petition was denied without a hearing. However, in 2013, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed the denial and remanded the case to the trial court for an evidentiary hearing.

Meanwhile, pressure from defense attorneys and activists alleging that Guevara was responsible for numerous false convictions was mounting. Some compared Guevara to Chicago’s Lt. Jon Burge, who oversaw a group of detectives that tortured numerous defendants into falsely confessing to murders. This 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 Jose Montanez and Armando Serrano, among others, were “more likely than not actually innocent.” In July 2016, Montanez’s and Serrano’s convictions were vacated and their charges were dismissed, joining the ranks of Johnson and Jacques Rivera, who was exonerated in 2011 in part based on evidence of Guevara’s misconduct.

In 2017, two years after the Sidley Austin report was released, the evidentiary hearing in Almodovar’s and Negron’s case was reaching its conclusion.

The hearing was hotly contested. Almodovar, represented by attorney Jennifer Bonjean, and Negron, represented by attorney Russell Ainsworth of the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School, had amassed a wealth of evidence pointing to Guevara’s improper influence on witnesses in scores of cases.

On April 10, 2017, during arguments before Circuit Court Court Judge James Linn, Ainsworth argued that Guevara solved the case “by just guessing,” and noted that Guevara has repeatedly refused to answer questions about the case, instead invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Assistant State’s Attorney Celeste Stack insisted that Guevara was not a “mystical man” who engaged in guesswork to frame defendants, but an experienced detective who labored to solve crimes during a time marked by extreme street gang violence in Chicago.

Two days later, however, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx abruptly announced that the prosecution would no longer oppose Almodovar’s and Negron’s petition for a new trial. "Proceeding with this case is no longer in the best interests of justice," Foxx said in a written statement.

On April 14, 2017, the prosecution requested that the convictions be vacated. Judge Linn granted the motion and the charges were dismissed. Almodovar was released. Negron remained in prison for a separate, unrelated murder conviction.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 4/26/2017
State:Illinois
County:Cook
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempted Murder, Assault
Reported Crime Date:1994
Convicted:1995
Exonerated:2017
Sentence:Life without parole
Race:Hispanic
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:19
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No