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Ricardo Rodriguez

Other Cook County Exonerations with Official Misconduct
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On December 16, 1995, a car drove past a group of young men standing near the corner of Hamlin and North Avenues on Chicago’s Northwest Side and a gunman opened fire. Rodney Kemppainen, a 38-year-old homeless man who happened to be nearby, was fatally shot.

Two weeks later, Chicago police Detective Reynaldo Guevara reported that he received an anonymous telephone call saying that the driver of the car—who also was the gunman—was a member of the Spanish Cobras street gang and whose nickname was “Casper.” Guevara claimed that he knew that “Casper” was the nickname of 22year-old Ricardo Rodriguez.

On December 27, 1995, Guevara showed a photographic lineup to Aurelio Martinez, who had been standing on the street when the gunshots were fired. Guevara wrote a report saying that Martinez selected Rodriguez, but that the identification was tentative.

Guevara next showed the photographic lineup to 27-year-old Rodolfo Zaragoza, who had told police that he was crossing the street when the first shots were fired. He said the car turned toward him and then stopped. The driver fired two shots at him and then sped off. He selected Rodriguez’s photo from the photo array and several days later, identified Rodriguez in a live lineup.

Rodriguez was arrested on December 30, 1995 and charged with first-degree murder, first-degree attempted murder, and aggravated discharge of a firearm.

Rodriguez went to trial in Cook County Court and chose to have his case decided by a judge without a jury. Martinez and Zaragoza both testified and identified Rodriguez as the gunman.

Guevara testified that he had gotten an anonymous tip that Rodriguez—Casper—was the gunman. Guevara said that Martinez and Zaragoza were positive in their identifications of Rodriguez. The trial judge refused to allow Rodriguez’s defense lawyers to cross-examine Guevara about his report that said Martinez’s identification was “tentative.” The judge also declined to allow the defense to challenge Guevara’s assertion that he received an anonymous tip that Rodriguez was the gunman.

On March 19, 1997, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Ron Himel convicted Rodriguez of first-degree murder, first-degree attempted murder, and aggravated discharge of a firearm. He sentenced Rodriguez to 60 years on the murder charge, and 30 years each on the attempted murder and discharge of a firearm charges. He ordered the sentences to be served consecutively—a total of 90 years.

Rodriguez filed a motion for new trial based on a sworn statement from Zaragoza saying that he was never sure that Rodriguez was the gunman, and that he only picked him because Guevara told him that Rodriguez was the shooter. The motion was denied.

In 2000, the Illinois Appellate Court upheld his convictions, but set aside the consecutive sentences and sent the case back to the trial court for resentencing. Rodriguez was then sentenced to 60 years in prison.

In the early 2000s, evidence began to mount that Guevara had engaged in misconduct—including physically abusing suspects and witnesses—in the murder investigation in Chicago.

In 2004, a jury acquitted Juan Johnson of murder after he won a new trial based on allegations of Guevara’s brutality during interrogations.

In June 2004, Rodriguez filed a post-conviction petition for a new trial based on another sworn affidavit from Zaragoza alleging Guevara coerced him into identifying Rodriguez. The petition also alleged that Guevara had engaged in misconduct in numerous other cases that included confessions coerced by physical violence as well as false witness identifications obtained through threats and physical violence.

The petition further claimed that Rodriguez’s trial attorney had failed to call Rodriguez’s mother and sister as witnesses to testify that Rodriguez was home at the time of the shooting.

Three years later, in June 2007, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office filed a response opposing the motion. The trial judge agreed to hold a hearing on the motion and in July 2007, denied relief on all the claims except for the claim of misconduct by Guevara. The judge granted a further hearing on that claim.

Meanwhile, over the years, pressure from defense attorneys and activists alleging that Guevara was responsible for numerous false convictions began to mount. The city of Chicago asked the law firm of Sidley Austin LLP to conduct an independent investigation of Guevara’s cases.

In 2010, Rodriguez’s case was re-assigned to Cook County Circuit Judge Maura Slattery Boyle. The defense filed exhibits and evidence relating to the claim that Guevara had engaged in misconduct, and the prosecution filed its response. The case then sat idle until 2013.

Rodriguez’s family had been paying a private lawyer to handle the post-conviction proceedings, but ultimately they ran out of money. In 2013, they contacted Russell Ainsworth at the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School because Ainsworth and other lawyers at the project were working on numerous cases of defendants who had accused Guevara of misconduct to coerce false confessions and false witness identifications.

Ainsworth and fellow attorney Tara Thompson agreed to represent Rodriguez. Rodriguez’s lawyer readily turned over his files and briefed them on the status of the case.

However, in April 2014, Judge Boyle, acting on her own, filed a complaint with the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission (ARDC) alleging that Thompson violated attorney ethics rules by contacting Rodriguez in prison at the request of his family while he was still being represented by another lawyer.

A month later, in May 2014, the ARDC dismissed the judge’s complaint, finding no ethics violation. In June 2014, Judge Boyle, again without prompting from the prosecution, disqualified the Exoneration Project lawyers from the case.

Ainsworth and Thompson appealed, and in December 2015, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed Boyle, finding that her ruling was an abuse of discretion. The court ordered Ainsworth and Thompson reinstated as Rodriguez’s lawyers and re-assigned the case to a different judge.

That same year 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 Johnson and Jacques Rivera, who had been exonerated in 2011 in part based on evidence of Guevara’s misconduct.

In December 2016, Thompson and Ainsworth filed a supplemental petition on Rodriguez’s behalf, citing evidence from a newly discovered witness—Ricardo Sierra—who said that he was present at the time of the shooting and saw the gunman. Sierra said he didn’t come forward at the time because he was in a gang and did not want to be known as a snitch.

Sierra said he had befriended Kemppainen, who was homeless, and had allowed Kemppainen to move into the Sierra family garage. On the night of the shooting, Sierra said he and other friends had bought pizza and beer. After he ate, he saved some pieces, took them home, and reheated them to bring back to Kemppainen.

Sierra said he was walking toward Kemppainen when he saw a car approach. Because he was a gang member, Sierra said he always studied cars carefully in case a gang enemy might be preparing to do a drive-by shooting.

He said the driver had dark hair and dark skin—unlike Rodriguez, who is light-skinned. Sierra said the driver began firing gunshots and so he ducked behind a dumpster. When the shooting was over, Sierra came out and saw Kemppainen on the ground. He said he tried to talk to one of the first police officers who arrived, but the officer told him to leave the area.

In 2017, while Rodriguez’s petition was still pending, five more men were exonerated of murder charges based on Guevara’s misconduct during either interrogations of them or witnesses. Roberto Almodovar and William Negron were exonerated in April 2017 after evidence showed that Guevara had improperly influenced witnesses to identify them as the perpetrators of a drive-by shooting that killed two people and wounded a third.

In November 2017, Jose Maysonet was exonerated when evidence showed he falsely confessed after a 17-hour interrogation punctuated by beatings and torture by Guevara.

In December 2017, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office dismissed the murder prosecutions of Gabriel Solache and Arturo DeLeon-Reyes, who had been convicted of murder in 2000 based on false confessions made after Guevara beat them during more than 40 hours of interrogation.

In January 2018, Thomas Sierra became the 10th person to be exonerated based on Guevara’s misconduct. And on February 15, 2018, the prosecution agreed to vacate conviction of Ariel Gomez and dismissed the case based on Guevara’s misconduct.

On March 27, 2018, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s post-conviction unit agreed that Rodriguez’s convictions should be vacated and the charges were dismissed. Rodriguez, who was a Mexican national and a legal permanent resident when he was arrested, was not released. Instead, he was arrested by U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement who sought to deport him as an “undocumented immigrant.”

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 4/4/2018
State:Illinois
County:Cook
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempted Murder, Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:1995
Convicted:1997
Exonerated:2018
Sentence:90 years
Race:Hispanic
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:22
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No