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Jose Cruz

Other Cook County, Illinois exonerations with official misconduct
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On October 6, 1993, at about 3:30 a.m., 40-year-old Vernon Meadors was waiting at a bus stop at the corner of North and Kedzie Avenues in Chicago, Illinois, when a car pulled up and the engine stopped. The driver, 16-year-old Antwane Douglas, asked where he could get a jump start.

Meadors later said that he suggested Douglas leave the car at the 24-hour gas station adjacent to the bus stop. According to Meadors, as Douglas walked away, another car pulled into the gas station. The front seat passenger asked Douglas if he was a member of the Disciples street gang. When Douglas said he was a Vice Lord, a rival gang, passengers got out of the car and began firing guns. At least 20 shots were fired and Douglas was killed.

Meadors dove to the ground when the shooting began. When it ended, he heard a voice say, “Witness!” Meadors then was shot in the arm. He played dead on the sidewalk until the car drove away. Subsequently, he was taken to a hospital where police interviewed him. He said there were three assailants and said the front seat passenger was a Hispanic male.

When he got home from the hospital that evening, Meadors was visited by detectives Reynaldo Guevara and Ernest Halvorsen and Sgt. Edward Mingey. They showed Meadows a photographic lineup containing about 21 photographs of Hispanic gang members, including 24-year-old Jose Cruz. Meadors did not identify anyone.

The following morning, on October 7, 1993, the Chicago Tribune newspaper published a short article about the shooting that mentioned Meadors by name and identified the block of the street where he lived. He became angry and afraid because he lived within walking distance to the location of the shooting.

On October 8, 1993, Detective Anthony Wojcik visited Meadors. At this time, Meadors said he could identify the shooter, but that he wanted assurances that he and his family would be protected before he would make an identification. The police agreed to relocate the family and put them into a witness protection program. Meadors then was shown a photo array of Latin Kings street gang members, and Meadors identified Cruz as the gunman who was in the front passenger seat. Meadors was then shown the first photographic array, and this time he identified Cruz.

Based on the identification, police arrested Cruz on October 9, 1993. He was charged with first-degree murder and attempted murder. During an interview, Cruz denied any involvement in the crime. He readily admitted to being involved in a previous shooting for which he had been arrested and was out on bond. Cruz said that he got home at about 12:30 a.m. and went to bed—three hours before the shooting occurred. He said he was awakened at 5 a.m. by his aunt who was leaving for Puerto Rico.

After Cruz was arrested, he was placed in a live lineup. Meadors identified him a third time.

In January 1996, Cruz went to trial in Cook County Circuit Court. There was no physical or forensic evidence linking him to the crime. Meadors testified and identified Cruz as one of the gunmen. The defense focused on attempting to show that the identification was unreliable because of Meadors’s initial failure to make an identification when shown the photographic array that contained Cruz’s picture.

On January 30, 1996, the jury convicted Cruz of first-degree murder and attempted murder. He was sentenced to 90 years in prison to be served consecutive to a 15-year term for the unrelated shooting case.

The Illinois Appellate Court for the First District upheld the convictions and sentence in October 1998.

In 2018, Gregory Swygert, an attorney at the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Bluhm Legal Clinic, Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, filed a post-conviction petition seeking to vacate Cruz’s conviction.

The petition said that the detectives in the case, including Guevara, had identified two witnesses shortly after the crime, both of whom said the gunman was a Black man.

One of the witnesses, Pedro Jaramillo, was working as an attendant at the gas station where the shooting occurred. When he was first interviewed, he said the shooter was a Black man. Days later, Jaramillo, a Spanish speaker who did not speak, understand, or read English, signed a statement that was written in English by police. The statement said Jaramillo said the shooter was either an “olive complected Hispanic or light skinned Black.” However, when interviewed as part of the Center on Wrongful Convictions reinvestigation, Jaramillo said he never made that statement. “No, it’s not possible,” he said. “[T]hose words were put on me by the police.” He said the police wanted him to change his identification, but he insisted that the shooter was Black.

Jaramillo said he was pressured by Guevara to sign the statement and that Guevara wanted to force Jaramillo to testify that the shooter was Hispanic. Guevara became “furious,” Jaramillo recalled. “I felt scared.” He said that Guevara wanted him to pick the wrong person [Cruz] as the gunman. In the end, Jaramillo’s supervisor found an attorney to represent Jaramillo to keep Guevara at bay.

Evan Rios was a witness at the scene of the shooting. At the time, he told police that the car that fled contained Black males. “I told [police] I saw 3-4 Black men in a car that sped away westbound on North Avenue,” Rios told the Center on Wrongful Convictions. “I gave them my contact information. I was not contacted by the police again regarding this case.”

Rios said that a police report which stated he spoke to Jaramillo after the shooting, and that he gave Meadors a threatening glare, was false. The report falsely characterized Rios as a “drug dealing gangbanger who intimidated both Jaramillo and Meadors,” the petition said.

The petition said that Cruz’s trial defense attorney never contacted Jaramillo or Rios to interview them as potential defense witnesses. The petition said the false reports likely discouraged the defense from contacting either Jaramillo or Rios.

The petition cited a mounting number of cases where defendants had been granted new trials based on evidence that Guevara and Halvorsen had forced defendants to falsely confess or forced witnesses to falsely testify.

In 2004, Juan Johnson, whose 30-year prison sentence for a murder conviction had been vacated in 2002, was acquitted at a retrial. A federal jury later awarded Johnson $21 million in damages from the city based on evidence that the original three eyewitnesses recanted their testimony and revealed that they were coerced by Guevara to identify Johnson.

Seven years later, Jacques Rivera was exonerated of a murder. He later filed a federal civil rights lawsuit accusing Guevara and other officers of burying evidence and pressuring the witness to falsely identify him as the triggerman. In 2018, a jury awarded Rivera $17.175 million.

In 2016, the murder convictions of Jose Montanez and Armando Serrano were vacated and the charges were dismissed. Both had been convicted on false testimony that had been coerced by Guevara.

In April 2017, Roberto Almodovar and William Negron were exonerated after evidence showed that Guevara had improperly influenced witnesses to identify them as the shooter and driver in a drive-by shooting that killed two people and wounded a third.

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.

In December 2017, Gabriel Solache and Arturo DeLeon-Reyes, who claimed that Guevara had beaten them into confessing to a murder they didn’t commit, had their murder convictions vacated and the charges dismissed.

On July 12, 2022, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit announced that it would no longer contest Cruz’s petition. Cook County Circuit Court Judge Tyria Walton vacated his convictions, and the charges were dismissed. Cruz was released that day, after spending more than 26 years in prison.

Cruz was the 18th person to be exonerated based on evidence of misconduct by Guevara or his partners. Others exonerated include: Thomas Sierra, Ariel Gomez, Ricardo Rodriguez, Robert Bouto, Geraldo Iglesias, Demetrius Johnson, Reynaldo Munoz, and Daniel Rodriguez.

On July 21, 2022, the convictions of Juan Hernandez and Rosendo Hernandez were vacated and dismissed.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 7/18/2022
Last Updated: 8/13/2022
State:Illinois
County:Cook
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempted Murder
Reported Crime Date:1993
Convicted:1996
Exonerated:2022
Sentence:90 years
Race/Ethnicity:Hispanic
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:24
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No