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John Velez

Other Cook County Exonerations
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Shortly before 2 a.m. on March 19, 2001, 26-year-old Anthony Hueneca, a member of the Latin Kings street gang, was gunned down while walking near 21st Street and Marshall Boulevard in Chicago.

When police arrived, two witnesses, Lorena Ricardo and Christine Murillo, said they saw three or four Hispanic males in dark clothing running away from the scene after the shooting.

Hueneca was shot at close range in the head and in the back. A slug was recovered from his clothing and two semi-automatic .380-caliber cartridge casings were found next to the body. No fingerprints were found and no weapon was recovered.

Later that morning, Detective Michael Bocardo went back to the scene where people had gathered at a makeshift memorial for Hueneca. After speaking with Gustavo Rivera and Lorena Ricardo, he brought them to the police station. They reported that prior to the shooting, they had been at a nightclub nearby with two other friends, Apolinar Mejia and Micaela Gutierrez. At the club, they saw Hueneca.

They left and drove to a house used as a Latin Kings hangout near 21st Street and Marshall Boulevard because Rivera wanted to get some rolling paper to smoke marijuana. Mejia and Ricardo said that while Rivera was in the house, a man wearing a dark hooded sweatshirt with the hood over his head approached the passenger side of their car. He pointed a semi-automatic pistol through the open window and said, “Where’s the Kings, where’s the Queen’s at” (referring to the Latin Kings) and that they should “get ready to die.”

Ricardo said they told him they were not gang members. In response, the gunman told them to “put the crown down,” referring to a hand gesture that was a sign of disrespect for the Latin Kings. The man then left after saying, “King killer. Queen killer, SD love,” which meant he was representing the Satan Disciples street gang, a bitter rival of the Latin Kings.

When the man left, Ricardo and the others drove away. As they were driving, they heard two gunshots. They said they drove back to the scene as police were arriving because they feared Rivera, whom they left behind, had been shot.

The following day, 18-year-old John Velez and a friend, Raul Lopez, came to the police station to talk about an unrelated incident in which Velez said he was the victim of a crime. After interviewing Velez, Bocardo took a photograph of him and put a copy of it in a folder he was carrying.

Apolinar Mejia and Micaela Gutierrez, who were in the car with Ricardo when the man threatened them, were in another part of the police station being questioned about the events leading up to Hueneca’s shooting. When Bocardo questioned Mejia, he opened the folder and Mejia saw the picture of Velez. Bocardo said that after they talked about the picture, Mejia identified Velez as the man who threatened to kill them shortly before the shooting.

Police dusted Mejia’s car for fingerprints and found one palm print suitable for comparison. Velez was excluded as the source.

Bocardo then compiled photographic lineups that included the photograph of Velez. On March 24, four days after Mejia first saw the photograph of Velez, Bocardo took the lineup to Ricardo, who identified Velez as the man who threatened them. On March 25, Micaela Gutierrez viewed the lineup and also identified Velez.

Based on the identifications, police arrested Velez. Velez admitted that he was a Satan Disciples gang member, but denied threatening Ricardo and the others. He also denied involvement in Hueneca’s shooting.

Bocardo later claimed that Velez said that after the shooting, he went to a cemetery with his girlfriend, Christina Izquierdo, to visit the grave of his uncle, Gent Velez. According to Bocardo, a year earlier, on March 22, 2000, Gent Velez had been fatally shot by the Latin Kings because he was a Satan Disciple. While they were at the cemetery, a group of Latin Kings shot at them and Izquierdo was wounded, according to Bocardo’s account.

A day later, on March 26, police brought Izquierdo to the station for questioning. Izquierdo, who was five months pregnant at the time, had been treated and released for the gunshot wound. The police released her about 10 hours after she arrived, after she had signed a statement saying that Velez had told her that he was going to hurt the person who shot her at the cemetery. According to the statement, Velez felt badly that she had been shot because he believed that he was the intended target since he had shot a Latin King a week earlier.

At about the same time that Izquierdo was there, Ricardo, Gutierrez, and Mejia were brought to the station. They viewed Velez in a live lineup and again identified him as the man who threatened to kill them just prior to the shooting.

Rivera was brought to the station as well. He said that after buying his rolling papers, he emerged from the house and noticed that his friends had driven away. Rivera said he saw two men wearing hoods walking on the street. One was Hueneca. As he stood waiting for his friends to return, the two men got within 10 to 15 feet of him. They then turned and walked away side by side. Rivera said at that moment, a car pulled up and he recognized the occupants as different friends. As he turned to greet them, he heard two gunshots. He looked back to see a man running away.

Rivera viewed the lineup and identified Velez as the man he saw walking with Hueneca and then fleeing after the shots were fired.

Velez was charged with first-degree murder. He went to trial in Cook County Circuit Court in October 2002. The prosecution contended that Velez, a Satan Disciple, shot Hueneca, a Latin King, to avenge the killing of his uncle Gent Velez, who was also a Satan Disciple.

Mejia, Ricardo, and Gutierrez testified that Velez was the man who threatened them with a gun shortly before Hueneca was killed. Rivera identified Velez as the man he saw walking with Hueneca moments before he heard the shots.

Rivera testified that he was about 10 to 15 feet from Velez at one point before the shooting. Rivera admitted that he was a member of the Latin Kings—the same gang to which Hueneca belonged. He also admitted that he had pled guilty to possession of narcotics after the shooting, and was still serving a five-year prison sentence. He denied that the prosecution made any promises to him in return for his testimony.

Bocardo testified that the shooting was an “anniversary killing” to avenge the death of Gent Velez a year earlier.

Assistant State’s Attorney Megan Goldish testified that she took the handwritten statement from Izquierdo. According to Goldish, Izquierdo said that Velez told her he shot Hueneca because the Latin Kings had killed his uncle.

Izquierdo testified and said the statement was false. She said the statement was prepared and given to her to sign after police threatened to take away her daughter. She admitted that she talked to Velez while she was in the hospital, and that he threatened to get revenge for the shooting. However, Velez was not with her at the cemetery and she was not visiting the grave of Velez’s uncle.

On October 15, 2002, the jury convicted Velez of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to 55 years in prison.

In 2005, the Illinois Court of Appeals upheld his conviction.

In 2008, Velez, acting without a lawyer, filed a post-conviction petition. Subsequently, attorney Jennifer Blagg began representing Velez. Following a lengthy re-investigation, she filed an amended post-conviction petition seeking a new trial. The petition cited evidence that Rivera had admitted that he falsely implicated Velez and also that he had received favorable treatment from the prosecution on his drug case in return for his testimony.

The petition also stated that Gent Velez was not a Satan Disciple. The autopsy report specifically noted that his body had multiple tattoos identifying him as a member of the Almighty Ambrose street gang—evidence that contradicted the prosecution’s theory for why Hueneca was killed.

Blagg located two witnesses who said that they went with Izquierdo to the cemetery on March 21 and that Velez was not there. Both said they went with Izquierdo to visit the grave of Emanuel Martinez. The petition contained a photograph of Martinez’s grave, which showed that he died on March 21, 2000—exactly one year to the day that Izquierdo was shot.

The witnesses said that when they were there, a funeral was taking place across the street. During the service, gunshots were fired and one bullet struck Izquierdo.

Moreover, cemetery records showed that Gent Velez’s grave was in a different part of the cemetery, quite a distance away from Martinez’s grave.

The petition also argued that Izquierdo’s statement was improperly admitted at Velez’s trial because Izquierdo had no first-hand knowledge of Hueneca’s shooting.

Furthermore, the petition said, Rivera had admitted to his cousin, William Pelmer, that he was inside the house getting rolling papers when the shots were fired—not on the street and certainly not within 10 to 15 feet of the gunman. Pelmer said Rivera said he identified Velez because police promised to help him with his drug case.

The petition alleged that Velez’s trial defense attorney had failed to conduct a thorough investigation. The attorney did not discover the autopsy results discrediting the prosecution’s theory of the case. And the defense attorney also failed to discover that Rivera, who testified that he was on the steps of the house when he saw Velez, would have been about 135 feet away—not 10 to 15 feet as he had claimed.

The defense attorney also failed to investigate alibi witnesses that Velez had reported prior to trial. These witnesses would have verified that Velez was in the suburb of Cicero, several miles away, at the time of the shooting.

In addition, the defense failed to present evidence that Velez had been shot in the left knee several months earlier. As a result of that injury, he walked with a cane and was physically incapable of running from the scene as reported by the witnesses.

The petition further said that Bocardo had testified falsely when he said Velez told him that Gent Velez was a Satin Disciple and that Gent Velez’s police file listed him as a Satan Disciple.

On December 11, 2017, more than 16 years after Velez was arrested, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office agreed to vacate the conviction on the ground that Izquierdo’s statement should not have been admitted at Velez’s trial as proof that he committed the crime. The conviction was vacated and the charges were dismissed.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 12/22/2017
State:Illinois
County:Cook
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2001
Convicted:2002
Exonerated:2017
Sentence:55 years
Race:Hispanic
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:18
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No