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Thomas Sierra

Other Cook County Exonerations with Official Misconduct
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On May 23, 1995, 24-year-old Noel Andujar was fatally shot in the head as he rode in the back seat of a car in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood.

The driver of the car, 26-year-old Jose Melendez, sped off and flagged down a police officer, who summoned an ambulance. Melendez and 21-year-old Alberto Rodriguez, who was in the front passenger seat, told police that as they were driving on Logan Avenue, a black Buick Park Avenue with tinted windows driving ahead of them slowed down.

Melendez said that as they were passing the vehicle on the right, the front passenger door flew open and a man in the passenger seat made hand gestures indicating he was a member of the Spanish Cobras street gang. Melendez said that because he, Rodriguez, and Andujar were members of the Latin Kings, a rival gang, he sped up to get away. As they drove off, several shots were fired and the rear window was blown out. Andujar, who was seated behind Melendez, was struck once in the head.

Melendez and Rodriguez said the gunman was a male Hispanic. There also appeared to be a black man in the back seat, but they could not provide any other details. Later, at the police station, Rodriguez said the gunman was wearing a hood and his hair was pushed back.

Detectives initially assigned to the case showed Melendez and Rodriguez dozens of photographs of Spanish Cobras gang members, but they did not identify anyone.

On May 24, 1995, detectives Reynaldo Guevara and his partner, Ernest Halvorsen, were assigned to investigate the murder. Guevara reported that just days earlier, on May 20, he was investigating the murder of Ruben Gonzalez and visited the home of Gonzalez’s mother, Esther Reyes. During that visit, a black Buick Park Avenue pulled up. The driver came to the front door and offered his condolences to Reyes for the death of her son. After the man left, Reyes said she knew him as “Lil Hector.” She said that she recognized a man who remained in the car in the front passenger seat as “Junito.”

Guevara determined that “Lil Hector” was Hector Montanez and “Junito” was 19-year-old Thomas Sierra, both of whom happened to be members of the Imperial Gangsters street gang—not the Spanish Cobras. Guevara reported that Reyes told him that the Imperial Gangsters were blaming members of the Orchestra Albany street gang for shooting her son. Since the Orchestra Albany gang controlled the territory where Andujar was killed, Guevara concluded that the killing was an act of revenge, but one taken against members of the wrong gang.

Guevara went to Rodriguez’s home and showed him a photographic array. Before doing so, he told Rodriguez that the gunman was among those photographs. Rodriguez looked at the photographs twice, spending five to 10 minutes, before he identified Sierra as the gunman.

On May 30, 1995, Rodriguez and Melendez came to the police station after Sierra had been brought there. Guevara reported that Melendez identified Sierra in a photographic lineup, and then both men identified Sierra in a live lineup.

By that time, Guevara claimed to have located the Buick Park Avenue that Montanez was driving the day that he came to speak to Reyes. Guevara said that Melendez and Rodriguez had identified it as the car from which the shots were fired—although photographs showed that the car did not have tinted windows as they originally described.

Detectives interviewed Montanez, who said that he, Sierra, and a third man (whom he would not identify) were driving in the Logan Square neighborhood when they pulled up next to the car containing Andujar, Melendez, and Rodriguez. Montanez said that Sierra, without warning, pulled out a gun and began shooting. Montanez was released without being charged.

Sierra denied any involvement in the shooting and said he was with his girlfriend at the time of the crime. He was arrested on a charge of first-degree murder for the killing of Andujar, and two counts of aggravated discharge of a firearm for shooting at Melendez and Rodriguez.

In February 1997, Sierra went to trial in Cook County Circuit Court. Rodriguez identified Sierra as the gunman. He admitted, however, that when the detectives came to his home to show him the photographic lineup, they told him the gunman was “probably the guy in these pictures.” Rodriguez also testified that the car he viewed in the police station parking lot did not have tinted windows like the car from which the shots were fired.

When Melendez took the witness stand and was asked if he saw the gunman in the courtroom, he said he did not. He then testified that he had identified Sierra at the time because Guevara pointed to Sierra’s photograph and told him to pick it. Melendez said Guevara put several photographs on the table and held the photograph of Sierra in his hand, saying that he “had reason to believe this was the guy.” Melendez said he agreed to identify Sierra because he was angry over the death of his friend and because he believed Guevara. He also claimed that he never saw a live lineup as Guevara had reported.

Melendez also told the jury that he never identified Montanez’s car as the one involved in the shooting. In fact, he had told Guevara it was not the right car. The gunman’s car had darkly tinted windows, Melendez said, while Montanez’s car did not.

Guevara and other detectives denied engaging in any improper lineup procedures. Montanez was not called as a witness.

On February 7, 1997, the jury convicted Sierra of first-degree murder and two counts of aggravated discharge of a firearm. Judge Stuart Palmer sentenced Sierra to 45 years in prison on the murder charge and an additional 10 years in prison on the firearm charges for a total of 55 years.

The Illinois Appellate Court upheld his convictions. In 1999, Sierra, acting without a lawyer, filed a post-conviction petition raising numerous issues, including that a detective had falsely testified that Sierra was arrested on the street when he had in fact been arrested in his home after the officers entered without a warrant. He also contended that his sentences should have been concurrent.

Judge Palmer reduced Sierra’s sentence to 45 years, but summarily dismissed the rest of the petition.

Sierra appealed the dismissal. In 2002, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed and ordered that an attorney be appointed to represent him at a hearing on the petition.

Although a Cook County assistant public defender was assigned to represent Sierra, the case languished for the next nine years.

Finally, in April 2011, Sierra’s lawyer filed an amended petition claiming, for the first time, that Guevara had improperly influenced the identifications by Rodriguez and Melendez, and that the jury had not been properly instructed.

More than two years later, in June 2013, the prosecution’s motion to dismiss the amended petition was denied. Nothing happened until October 2016, when the trial court dismissed the jury instruction issue. In early 2017, Sierra sought help from the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School. In May 2017, attorney Steven Art, joined by Joshua Tepfer and Anand Swaminathan, took over the case. Three subsequent amended petitions were filed detailing Guevara’s misconduct, including beating suspects as well as witnesses, and coercing false confessions from suspects and false identifications from witnesses.

By the end of 2017, nine other men—Juan Johnson, Jacques Rivera, Armando Serrano, Jose Montanez, William Negron, Robert Almodovar, Jose Maysonet, Gabriel Solache, and Arturo DeLeon-Reyes—had been exonerated of murder convictions that were based on Guevara’s misconduct. These convictions involved false confessions that resulted from Guevara’s physical abuse of suspects, and false identifications that Guevara coerced from witnesses, some of whom said they were beaten.

In October 2017, Guevara was called to testify at a hearing on a post-conviction alleging that Solache and DeLeon-Reyes had falsely confessed to murder after Guevara beat them. Guevara denied he had punched and slapped them during interrogations.

On December 13, 2017, a judge suppressed Solache’s and DeLeon-Reyes’s confessions, concluding that Guevara’s denials that he physically abused them were “bald-faced lies.” Days later, on December 21, 2017, the prosecution dismissed the charges against Solache and DeLeon-Reyes.

On January 9, 2018, with a hearing looming on Sierra’s post-conviction petition, the prosecution agreed to vacate Sierra’s conviction and dismissed the case.

The dismissal came less than two months after Sierra was released on parole. He left prison on November 17, 2017, after serving half of his 45-year sentence.

In February 2018, Ariel Gomez became the 11th person convicted based on Guevara's misconduct to be exonerated.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 1/16/2018
State:Illinois
County:Cook
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:1995
Convicted:1997
Exonerated:2018
Sentence:55 years
Race:Hispanic
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:19
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No