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Madeline Mendoza

Other Exonerations with Misconduct by Detective Guevara
Shortly after midnight, on May 12, 1992, 22-year-old Jimmy Cruz and 21-year-old Hector Reyes, both members of the Latin Kings street gang, were both fatally shot in the head in Humboldt Park on Chicago’s northwest side. Cruz was shot in a park bathroom. Reyes was shot outside the bathroom.

The following day, Ivette Rodriguez, who was in custody for a drug offense, told Chicago police detectives Reynaldo Guevara and Ernest Halvorsen that “Jackie“ had bragged about shooting two Latin Kings. Rodriguez said Jackie claimed to be with “Mari” and “Tuti” when it happened. According to Rodriguez, Jackie said they went to the park and began talking to Latin Kings. Jackie followed Reyes into the bathroom and shot him in the back of the head. Rodriguez said Mari was walking with Cruz when Jackie walked up behind him and shot him while Tuti waited in a nearby car.

The detectives determined that Jackie was 15-year-old Jacqueline Montanez, Mari was 21-year-old Marilyn Mulero, and Tuti was 16-year-old Madeline Mendoza. According to the police, the three were female members of the Maniac Latin Disciples, a gang that had a fierce rivalry with the Latin Kings. About a week earlier, Ismael Torres, a member of the Maniac Latin Disciples had been murdered by the Latin Kings. The police believed the murders of Cruz and Reyes were in retaliation.

Later that day, the detectives took Rodriguez to Torres’s funeral. There, they arrested Montanez and Mulero. The detectives drove around, questioning them about the shooting. Both refused to speak. Guevara and Halvorsen then drove to Latin King territory. They hailed Latin King members and told them that Montanez and Mulero were responsible for the murders.

Montanez and Mulero were then driven to a police station and placed in separate interrogation rooms. Mulero asked to speak to an attorney, but was ignored. She would later say she was not given her Miranda warning until she met with a prosecutor and signed a statement admitting that Montanez shot Reyes and she shot Cruz.

Up until then, Mulero denied taking part in the crime. The detectives told her she had two options: take the blame for one of the murders or take the blame for both and die by lethal injection. They told her that Montanez had confessed and implicated her in both murders. They said she would never see her children again unless she confessed.

At one point, Halvorsen stood behind Mulero, placed his finger against the back of her head, and made the sound of a gunshot. After nine hours of interrogation, she agreed to sign a statement saying she killed Cruz. Meanwhile, Montanez signed a confession admitting she shot Reyes and accusing Mulero of shooting Cruz.

On May 14, 1992, the detectives interviewed Rodriguez again. Her statement changed. Now she said that when she saw the three, they were celebrating the murders and that Montanez only took credit for one of the killings. In this version, Montanez said that Cruz was walking hand in hand with Mendoza when Mulero shot him in the back of the head.

In a third statement, obtained by Guevara and Halvorsen, Rodriguez changed her account drastically. She said that the three women invited her to “make a hit.” Rodriguez said she refused and that, 90 minutes later, the three returned to the neighborhood and bragged about killing Latin Kings.

The detectives also interviewed Rhonda Riley and reported that she corroborated Rodriguez’s third statement. She also viewed a lineup and identified Montanez and Mulero as the two women that Rodriguez was talking about. That same day, Mendoza was arrested as well. All three were charged with first-degree murder.

In return for her statement, Rodriguez’s drug charges were dismissed, and she did not face a federal parole violation. Mulero sought to suppress her confession, claiming it was false and was coerced by the detectives. That motion was denied after the judge ruled that the detectives had made no promises, misrepresentations, or fabrications during the interrogation.

Montanez, who was charged as an adult, was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder by a Cook County jury on August 6, 1993. Key witnesses at the trial were Jackie and Marilyn Serrano, both of whom testified that they saw the shooting from their apartments that faced Humboldt Park.

Jackie Serrano claimed that from her first floor apartment window, she observed two men and three women in the park and heard a gunshot. She then saw one of the shorter women behind a male and heard another gunshot. Montanez was 5 feet 7 inches tall, and Mulero was 5 feet 1 inch tall.

Marilyn Serrano testified that she was asleep in her second floor apartment when Jackie, her niece, came in and told her to look out the window. Marilyn said she saw two females with a male, heard a gunshot, and saw a muzzle flash.

Montanez was sentenced to life in prison without parole. On September 22, 1993, Mendoza pled guilty to murder and was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

By that point, Mulero’s family had retained Jeremiah Lynch to represent her. Lynch had never handled a death penalty case. He conducted no investigation. He met with Mulero only three times. And though other defense attorneys in the Cook County Public Defender’s Office tried to stop him, Lynch convinced her to plead guilty to first-degree murder on September 27, 1993 in Cook County Circuit Court without any agreement with the prosecution. Lynch then withdrew from the case—and from the practice of law—to become a priest.

The prosecution sought the death penalty. At a sentencing hearing before a jury in November 1993, Joan Roberts, also known as Joan Santiago, testified that in June 1993, she told police that while in the Cook County Jail with Mulero, Montanez, and Mendoza, Mulero and Mendoza admitted involvement in the crime.

Roberts said that she spoke to Mendoza on one occasion, and Mendoza told her that Montanez shot one of the men in the bathroom, then handed the gun to Mulero, who shot the other man in the back of the head. Roberts said that on a different occasion, Mulero asked Roberts to “take out” Montanez for talking to the police. Roberts said that after giving this information to Halvorsen, she was released from jail and placed on electronic monitoring. Armed robbery charges that she was then facing were reduced to misdemeanors, and she was given probation.

Detective Anthony Riccio, who at the time of the murder was assigned to the gang crimes unit and was familiar with the street gangs in the Humboldt Park area, testified about a news videotape taken of Mulero after she confessed to the murders.  

Riccio said that as he escorted Mulero through the police station after her confession, television news cameras captured her shouting gang slogans and flashing gang signals with her hands. As the videotape was played, Riccio described how Mulero took her hand and placed it over her heart, which he said meant that what she was about to say and do was “from her heart.” She then pointed five fingers downward, which represented a disrespectful gesture to the Latin Kings, and then flipped her hand in an upright position, like a pitchfork, to show her allegiance to the Maniac Latin Disciples. Mulero also declared, “KK,” which meant “king killers” and was a form of disrespect to the Latin Kings.

Mulero testified and admitted that she shot Cruz. She said she started crying right afterward. She said she decided to plead guilty because she was remorseful. The prosecution cross-examined her about her testimony during the pretrial motion to suppress her confession when she had accused the detectives of threatening her and other misconduct.

Joseph Widdington, a teacher in the jail education program, testified that Mulero was a tutor. He said she was a quiet person who wrote poetry. Gloria Brookins, a social worker and counselor, testified that Mulero helped her with other women with respect to peer tutoring, organizing socials, and monthly activities. Brookins said Mulero was friendly and well liked. Sergeant Sharon Smith, a correctional officer, testified that Mulero was a quiet, nice, respectful, and affable person. Smith said she never saw Mulero engage in gang-related behavior.

During closing argument to the jury, Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Krejci characterized the motion to suppress as a “legal maneuver” and argued that it demonstrated Mulero's lack of remorse. He declared, “If she wanted to plead guilty, she could have come [into] court. And you saw the indictment when she was indicted back in the spring of 1992. She could have come to court and pled guilty. But no, she tried some legal maneuver to try to get her confession thrown out of court. That didn't work, she saw what happened to her co-defendants, that didn't work. You figure out why she pled guilty. She is cutting her losses. What else is she going to do?”

Krejci added, “She is trying to maneuver her way through the legal system to tell you she is remorseful. You saw her up on the stand when she took the stand. Was she remorseful or was she trying to figure out a way how to get out of this mess she's got herself into. She is trying to beat this case absolutely one hundred percent. She is like a trapped rat in a corner that has no way out.”

On November 12, 1993, based on the jury’s vote to recommend that Mulero be sentenced to death, Judge John Mannion formally sentenced Mulero to death. She was the first woman to be sentenced to death in Illinois.

At the time, Justin Brooks was a law professor at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School at Western Michigan University, and he read about Mulero being sentenced to death on a plea bargain. Brooks would later say that although he had no idea Mulero was innocent, he was “shocked she could be sentenced to death without a trial.”

Brooks came to Illinois and met with Mulero. She told him she was innocent. Brooks recruited four students from his criminal law class to help investigate the case.

Meanwhile, Mulero sought a new sentencing hearing, but that motion was denied. She then filed a motion, acting without a lawyer, to withdraw her guilty plea and vacate her sentence. Subsequently, acting with the help of Brooks, supplemental motions were filed to withdraw the plea and vacate the death sentence. The court refused to accept the filing of the new sentencing hearing motion. The motion to withdraw the guilty plea was denied.

An appeal followed.

In 1995, the First District Illinois Appellate Court vacated Montanez’s conviction and ordered a new trial. The court ruled that her confession was involuntary because Montanez was a juvenile and the detectives failed to allow her to speak to her mother before questioning her. Montanez was convicted again at a retrial and again sentenced to life in prison without parole. In October 2016, Montanez was resentenced to 63 years in prison after the U.S. Supreme Court barred life without parole sentences for juveniles.

In May 1997, the Illinois Supreme Court vacated Mulero’s death sentence and ordered a new sentencing hearing. The court held that the cross-examination of Mulero and the argument to the jury about her contesting the confession during the pretrial hearing was improper.

“During both the cross-examination of defendant and the closing arguments, the prosecutor used defendant's mere filing of the motion to suppress against her in an effort to demonstrate defendant's lack of remorse,” the court declared. “The State's use of defendant's motion to suppress in this manner was wholly improper and unquestionably prejudicial.”

Brooks took Mulero’s case in front of a new jury for sentencing. On November 24, 1998, the jury declined to impose the death sentence. As a result, Mulero was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Brooks then moved to southern California, and in 1999 he founded the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law in San Diego. He continued to work on Mulero’s case for two decades, first in state habeas proceedings, then in federal court, ultimately being denied review by the United States Supreme Court. He also filed a petition in the United Nations arguing that the Illinois criminal justice system was in violation of international human rights law when it sentenced people to death without trials.

Over time, the evidence against Mulero began to fall apart. Investigators went to the apartments where Jackie and Marilyn Serrano claimed to have seen the gunshots. They determined that the bathroom where Reyes was shot and the area outside where Cruz was shot were not visible from the apartments.

Petitions seeking clemency were denied—in 2007 by Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and in 2014 by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn. No action was taken on the United Nations petition.

In January 2017, Montanez came forward and admitted that she had shot both men and that Mulero and Mendoza had nothing to do with the crime. She said she was outraged that Torres, who was deaf, was gunned down by the Latin Kings. She said she vowed to Torres’s mother that she would get revenge.

Montanez said she shot Reyes in the park bathroom, and, when she came out, she thought that Cruz was going to “do something” to Mendoza. “I just shot,” Montanez said. “And when I shot, it hit and he hit the floor.”

Montanez said that she did not think it was fair that she would be eligible for release in 2023 while Mulero was serving a sentence that meant she would die in prison when she “DID NOT KILL ANYONE.”

Montanez was not the only person to recant. Joan Roberts said her testimony was false and was the result of threats from Halvorsen, including that he would send gang members after her family. Rhonda Riley said that, when she was brought to the police station, Guevara and Halverson told her to identify Mulero and Montanez in the lineup. She said she never heard Mulero or Montanez invite her and Rodriguez to kill Latin Kings.

Meanwhile, the evidence of misconduct by Guevara and Halvorsen that resulted in wrongful convictions based on false confessions and false claims by witnesses had been steadily mounting.

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 they were coerced by Guevara to identify Johnson.

On August 5, 2009, Mendoza was released on parole.

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 had been coerced by Guevara.

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.

As the evidence of Detective Guevara's involvement in other wrongful convictions continued to emerge, Brooks recruited Lauren Myerscough-Mueller, then an attorney with the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School; Lauren Kaeseberg, legal director at the Illinois Innocence Project; and Tara Thompson, then of the Exoneration Project, to assist in filing a new habeas petition and a new clemency petition.

In 2019, another clemency petition was filed with Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker. On April 6, 2020, Pritzker granted the petition and commuted Mulero’s sentence. She was released on April 9, 2020. On July 12, 2022, the prosecution agreed to vacate and dismiss the murder conviction of Jose Cruz, who claimed he was wrongly convicted of murder based on misconduct by Guevara. 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 Cook County State’s Attorney’s office asked that the convictions of Eruby Abrego and Jeremiah Cain be vacated and dismissed. On that same day, the prosecution also agreed to dismiss the murder convictions of Juan Hernandez and his brother, Rosendo Hernandez, both falsely convicted by misconduct of Guevara and other detectives.

On August 9, 2022, the Cook County State’s attorney’s office agreed to vacate Mulero’s conviction, and the case was dismissed.

“Marilyn was just 21 when she was ripped away from her two young sons, terrorized by a corrupt police detective, and then convicted and sentenced to die in prison for a crime she did not commit,” said Kaeseberg. “While former Detective Guevara is a real-life example of evil and terror, today’s exoneration of Marilyn is a shining example of perseverance and a testament to the power of the human spirit.”

In September, attorney Joel Flaxman filed a motion to vacate Mendoza’s conviction. The motion cited the evidence of the misconduct by Guevara and Halvorsen, the recantations and the dismissal of Mulero’s conviction. The motion noted that Mendoza, “like Mulero, is a victim of wrongdoing by Guevara and Halvorsen” and that “there is no basis to deny [Mendoza] the relief that her co-defendant Mulero has already received.”

On January 3, 2023, the prosecution agreed to vacate Mendoza’s conviction. After the conviction was vacated, the case was dismissed.

Following the dismissal, Mendoza said she wanted to become an attorney. “I want to fight for people just like me. And not only like me, but I just want to fight for justice–period,” she said.

In April 2023, Mendoza filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Chicago seeking compensation for her wrongful conviction. In July 2023, she was granted a certificate of innocence, clearing the way to seek compensation from the state of Illinois.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 1/10/2023
Last Updated: 7/12/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Conspiracy
Reported Crime Date:1992
Sentence:35 years
Age at the date of reported crime:16
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No