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Johnny Flores

Other Exonerations with Misconduct by Detective Guevara
Shortly after 9 p.m. November 22, 1989, the night before Thanksgiving, Scott Thurmond burst into La Rosita, a Mexican restaurant and bar at 3801 West Fullerton Avenue in Chicago, Illinois, demanding to use a telephone. He was shouting that his friend had just been shot, and he used a slur for someone of Mexican heritage to describe the gunman.

Thurmond would later claim he was punched three times in the face and refused access to the telephone. The owner, Juan Antonio Valdez, would testify that Thurmond was intoxicated, and that he escorted Thurmond outside, taking a knife from Thurmond’s waistband as he did so. Valdez said he then called the police.

Police found Thurmond’s friend, 20-year-old Jeffrey Rhodes propped against the wall of the restaurant, bleeding profusely from a gunshot wound to the chest. Rhodes was taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead. One of the first officers to arrive, Steven Villarreal, asked Thurmond to show him where the shooting occurred. Thurmond walked two blocks south on Hamlin Avenue to the intersection of Palmer Street where he said the shooting took place.

Thurmond said he and Rhodes were walking when a male Hispanic wearing a dark hoodie, accompanied by two young women, walked past. According to Thurmond, the Hispanic male shouted, “Disciple Love,” a reference to the Gangster Disciples street gang. Thurmond said Rhodes shouted, “Fuck you!”

Thurmond later testified, “I told him we aren’t about nothing,” meaning that they were not in any gang. Thurmond said the Hispanic male pulled a “dark revolver” and fired twice before running into a gangway. The two young women ran down the street. Thurmond said he and Rhodes ran until Rhodes collapsed next to the restaurant.

Thurmond was taken to the police station where he looked through photo albums of gang members, but did not see anyone that he recognized as the gunman. Thurmond returned the following day and looked at more books, but did not recognize anyone.

The shooting was unsolved in March 1990 when police gang crimes specialist Reynaldo Guevara informed Detective Roland Paulnitsky that an informant told him that the gunman was a gang member nicknamed “Karate,” who Guevara said was 19-year-old Johnny Flores.

Paulnitsky would later testify that on March 29, 1990, he went to Thurmond’s home and showed him a photographic array while they sat in Paulnitsky’s police car. Thurmond selected the photo of Flores as the gunman.

On March 31, 1990, Flores voluntarily came to the police station and stood in a live lineup with three fillers—none of whose photographs were in the photo lineup Thurmond had seen two days earlier. When Flores, who was in the number four position, stepped forward, Thurmond’s eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed. He was crying and refused to speak. After a brief time, Thurmond seemed to regain his composure, and refused medical treatment. Paulnitsky then drove Thurmond home.

On April 3, Thurmond called Paulnitsky and reported that the person who was number four—Flores—was the gunman. Flores again voluntarily came to the station and stood in another lineup. This was another four-person lineup and none of the three fillers were in either the previous lineup or the photo array. The repeated showing of lineups, whether photographic or in person, in which the suspect is the only consistent participant is a suggestive practice that leads to false identifications.

After Thurmond identified Flores as the gunman, Flores was arrested. He was charged with first-degree murder.

On December 17, 1990, a jury was selected in Cook County Circuit Court. On December 18, Thurmond again identified Flores, who had no criminal record, as the gunman. Thurmond now said the shooting took place at the intersection of Central Park and Shakespeare Avenues—three blocks east of where he said the shooting occurred on the night of the crime. He said that about 30 seconds elapsed from when he first saw the gunman until the shots were fired.

Thurmond denied that he was intoxicated. He said he had drunk two beers from a six-pack that was shared with Rhodes and Rhodes’s brother. Thurmond said he and Rhodes had gone on foot to try to buy some marijuana but were unable to find someone to sell them any. They were walking back to Rhode’s apartment when the shooting occurred.

Thurmond recounted how, after Rhodes collapsed, he went into La Rosita seeking help. He conceded that he used an ethnic slur to describe the gunman and said he was punched in the face three times by people at the bar. He said he ran outside and flagged down a police car.

Guevara, who by that time had been promoted to detective, testified that he talked to “various gang members,” and got information that Flores was the gunman. He said he passed the information to Paulnitsky.

The only witness called by the defense was Valdez, the owner of the La Rosita restaurant and bar. He said that he confronted Thurmond in the lobby. The lobby had two doors, one leading to the restaurant and one leading to the bar. Valdez said he came from behind the bar because Thurmond was shouting and using an ethnic slur. Valdez said, “I would say he was drunk—smelled of alcohol.” Valdez said he thought Thurmond was “mentally disturbed,” and so when he saw a knife in Thurmond’s waistband, he removed it as he moved him outside. Valdez said no one punched Thurmond.

During closing arguments on December 19, 1990, defense attorney Kathleen Pantle argued that Thurmond was mistaken and that Flores was innocent. She said that Thurmond had only a few seconds to see the gunman, the lighting—by only streetlights—was poor, and he was so intoxicated that he couldn’t remember where the shooting occurred. She noted that there was no evidence of the shooting found at either location that Thurmond pointed out.

Pantle told the jury, "But this is the type of memory that the State wants to use to convict Johnny Flores. Someone who within a half hour can't even remember where it occurred."

Pantle noted that the first police officer on the scene said he responded to the location based on a phone call, which would have been the call made by Valdez. Pantle noted the differences between Valdez’s account and Thurmond’s account to argue that Thurmond was wrong. "Maybe that's how he remembers it,” Pantle said. “But again his memory is poor."

Pantle also noted that when Thurmond went into the restaurant, he used the ethnic slur. She said Thurmond wasn’t “pleading for help…he went in angry and abusive. He wants someone to pay for shooting his friend. He wants Johnny Flores to pay. And he is willing to go in and insult everyone in that restaurant."

Hours later, the jury convicted Flores of first-degree murder. Judge Robert Boharic sentenced Flores to 40 years in prison.

The First District Illinois Appellate Court upheld the conviction and sentence in November 1993.

In 2001, Flores, acting without a lawyer, filed a post-conviction petition raising several issues, including that the lineup procedures were unfairly suggestive, that the gang crimes unit—the same unit in which Guevara had been involved—had been exposed as rife with corruption with the conviction of Joseph Miedzianowski that year on federal charges of running a drug ring with other corrupt officers. The petition also noted that Paulnitsky had been involved in the wrongful conviction of Miguel Castillo, who was exonerated in 2001 of a murder conviction. Castillo was convicted based on a confession that he claimed Paulnitsky and other officers fabricated after Castillo refused to confess despite being beaten in an interrogation room. The petition was rejected as untimely except for the claim based on Miedzianowski’s conviction, which the court said was not material.

In September 2017, attorney Russell Ainsworth with the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School filed an amended petition that detailed the growing list of allegations of misconduct by Guevara, who had retired in 2005. Dozens of people—defendants and witnesses—claimed to have been physically abused until they falsely confessed or falsely implicated someone else in murders.

In February 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 Guevara had coerced them to identify Johnson.

Seven years later, in October 2011, 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 Guevara coerced.

In April 2017, Robert 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.

Two months after the amended petition was filed on Flores’s behalf, 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 November 16, 2018, Flores was released from prison on parole. He had spent nearly 28 years in prison since the date of his conviction.

Ultimately, a hearing on Flores’s amended petition was ordered. On March 22, 2022, Ainsworth presented testimony from Deryn Mary Strange, an expert in eyewitness identification, during the hearing before Cook County Circuit Judge William Hooks.

Strange identified numerous factors that she said called Thurmond’s identification of Flores into question. “I think the major issue was the length of the event followed by the lighting conditions at the time, the fact that there were other things that were capturing his attention in the very small portion in the very small event window—that being a weapon…the stress involved at the time, and the fact that the male perpetrator, the one with the gun, was wearing a hoodie affecting what was able to be [remembered].”

“The science is clear that under these very conditions the identification could not be reliable,” Strange testified.

During the hearing, Ainsworth noted that during previous testimony as part of the post-conviction investigation, Paulnitsky had offered a different version from what he offered at trial about how he came to include Flores’s photograph in the initial photo lineup that he showed Thurmond in his police car. During previous testimony, Paulnitsky had said he got Flores’s name from his superiors—not from Guevara. Ainsworth argued that Paulnitsky was lying to try to protect Guevara.

Ainsworth noted that Guevara, when asked about his various cases, had invoked his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. Judge Hooks took the matter under advisement pending a ruling on the petition.

By that time, others exonerated based on misconduct by Guevara, his partner, Ernest Halvorsen and other detectives included Thomas Sierra, Ariel Gomez, Ricardo Rodriguez, Robert Bouto, Geraldo Iglesias, Demetrius Johnson Reynaldo Munoz, and Daniel Rodriguez.

In July 2022, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office agreed to dismiss murder convictions of Jose Cruz, Eruby Abrego, and Jeremiah Cain. After a judge vacated the convictions of brothers Juan and Rosendo Hernandez, calling Guevara “a lying, scheming person,” the prosecution dismissed those cases as well.

On August 9, 2022, the State’s Attorney’s Office dismissed the conviction of Flores as well as the convictions of six others—all contending they had been victimized by Guevara.

In March 2023, Flores filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Chicago and Guevara seeking compensation for his wrongful conviction. He also obtained a certificate of innocence and filed a claim for state compensation.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 9/6/2022
Last Updated: 12/13/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1989
Sentence:40 years
Age at the date of reported crime:18
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No