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Tony Gonzalez

Other Exonerations with Misconduct by Detective Guevara
On the evening of July 23, 1998, 15-year-old Yesenia Rodriguez and her 40-year-old mother, Iluminada Nieves, were in their apartment at 1215 North Washtenaw Avenue in Chicago, Illinois. Rodriguez’s boyfriend, 24-year-old Luis Marrero came over with one of his friends, 23-year-old Hector Rivera.

During the night, Rodriguez and Marrero quarreled over his excessive drinking—on two occasions, Marrero had gone out and returned after buying more alcohol.

At about 2 a.m., on July 24, Marrero left the apartment, walked down the stairs, and left the building. Rodriguez followed him as he went toward the alley. Nieves and Rivera came outside, but then returned to the entryway to the building.

Rodriguez and Marrero stood in the alley arguing. Marrero had his back to the alley. Rodriguez would later tell police that she saw a man with a gun approach Marrero from behind, and shoot him twice, once in the arm and once in the chest. The man then ran toward the apartment building and shot at Nieves and Rivera. Nieves was shot in the throat. Rivera was shot in the back, right forearm, and left thigh.

The gunman then came back to the alley and shot Marrero again as he was lying on the pavement. When the gunman pointed his pistol at Rodriguez, she begged him not to shoot. The gunman hit her in the head with the gun and ran away.

Rivera died of his wounds. Marrero and Nieves survived.

Rodriguez told police that the shooter was a Black Hispanic male who had a black shirt wrapped around his head concealing his face.

On July 25, 1998, Chicago police detectives Reynaldo Guevara and Ernest Halvorsen were assigned to investigate the shooting. They went to the apartment and interviewed Rodriguez. Afterward, the officers reported that Rodriguez now said the shirt did not conceal the gunman’s face and that the shooter yelled “Jiver Killer!” before he opened fire.

Because the Latin Jivers was a street gang that was at war with the Spanish Cobras in that neighborhood, the officers took Rodriguez to the police station to look at a book containing photographs of suspected Cobras. The officers reported that Rodriguez identified a photograph of 21-year-old Tony Gonzalez as the gunman.

Halvorsen and Guevara then went to the hospital where they interviewed Marrero. Marrero said the gunman had a gold tooth. The detectives showed Marrero a photographic lineup containing Gonzalez’s photograph. Gonzalez’s was the only photograph with a white background; the other five had dark backgrounds. And Gonzalez was the only one holding up a police booking card. Marrero picked Gonzalez as the gunman.

On August 9, 1998, Gonzalez was arrested and placed in a lineup viewed by Rodriguez and Marrero. Both identified Gonzalez as the gunman.

Gonzalez was charged with first-degree murder for the shooting of Rivera, the first-degree attempted murders of Marrero, Rodriguez, and Nieves, and counts of aggravated battery with a firearm and aggravated discharge of a firearm.

Prior to a trial, Gonzalez filed a motion to suppress Marrero’s identification, arguing that the photo lineup was suggestive. Guevara admitted he made no attempt to cover up the booking card. The motion was denied.

In October 1999, Gonzalez went to trial in Cook County Circuit Court. Before a jury was selected, the prosecution dismissed all charges except for the counts of first-degree murder and first-degree attempted murder.

During testimony, Guevara conceded that although he had been a gang crimes investigator before being assigned to the homicide unit, he had never encountered Gonzalez. Guevara also said he had no knowledge of how the photograph of Gonzalez came to be in the Cobra book. It could be included based simply on an officer’s hunch, he said. Guevara also agreed that Gonzalez bore no tattoos or other gang insignia.

Marrero and Rodriguez both identified Gonzalez as the gunman.

Judge Coghlan denied a defense motion to present expert testimony on the reliability of eyewitness identifications.

No physical or forensic evidence tied Gonzalez to the shooting.

Edgar Torres, Gonzalez’s brother, testified that on July 23, 1998, Gonzalez spent the majority of the day at Torres’s apartment painting a fence in the yard. Torres testified that Gonzalez remained at the apartment into the evening hours. Torres also said that around 9:30 p.m., Gonzalez’s father, Tony Gonzalez Sr., came to the apartment. Torres said that when he went to bed at 10:30 p.m., Gonzalez and his father were sitting on the front porch of the apartment.

Tony Gonzalez Sr. corroborated that testimony. He said that he and his son drank beer on Torres’s porch, leaving around midnight, and arriving home at just after midnight. He said he and Gonzalez had sandwiches and that Gonzalez went to bed around 12:30 a.m. He said he watched television until 2:30 a.m. and that he never saw Gonzalez leave the bedroom. A dentist testified that none of Gonzalez’s teeth had ever been reduced for a crown.

On October 18, 1999, after first declaring that it could not reach a unanimous verdict, the jury convicted Gonzalez of the murder of Rivera and two counts of attempted murder for the wounding of Nieves and Marrero. Gonzalez was acquitted of the attempted murder of Rodriguez. Judge Coghlan sentenced Gonzalez to 42 years in prison.

In November 2001, the First District Illinois Appellate Court vacated the convictions and ordered a new trial. The appeals court ruled that the jury instruction on evaluating eyewitness identification testimony was erroneously worded such that instead of considering five factors, the jury could have considered just one to find that the identifications were reliable.

The court noted that not only was the instruction erroneous, but that the prosecutor emphasized the erroneous instruction in closing argument. “The instruction as given may have mistakenly led the jury to rely on but a single factor that the identification testimony presented was reliable,” the court said. “[T]he evidence presented in this case was close. Therefore, we cannot say that [Gonzalez’s] guilt was so clear and convincing as to render the trial court’s error harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.”

In February 2003, Gonzalez went to trial a second time. The trial mirrored the first trial, the proper jury instruction was given, and on February 26, 2003, Gonzalez was again convicted of first-degree murder and two counts of first-degree attempted murder. He was again sentenced to 42 years in prison.

In July 2009, Gonzalez, acting without a lawyer, filed a post-conviction petition seeking relief after a federal jury in June 2009 awarded Juan Johnson $21 million in damages based on evidence that the three eyewitnesses who had implicated Johnson in a murder testified that they were coerced by Guevara to identify Johnson, a former member of the Spanish Cobras. Johnson had been granted a new trial on the murder charges and acquitted in 2004. Gonzalez’s petition was summarily dismissed.

In July 2011, the First District Illinois Appellate Court reversed the dismissal. The court ruled that Gonzalez had made a meritorious claim, and it remanded the case for a possible hearing.

Subsequently, Gonzalez, by then represented by attorneys Jennifer Bonjean and Ashley Cohen, filed an amended post-conviction petition expanding at great length on the evidence of Guevara’s misconduct. The petition asserted that the prosecution knew of Guevara’s misconduct prior to Gonzalez’s retrial in 2003, but failed to disclose the evidence to the defense.

The petition attached “extensive sworn testimony and affidavits from individuals with first-hand knowledge of Guevara’s pattern and practice of coercing or manipulating false evidence against suspects.”

A prosecution motion to dismiss was granted after the prosecution argued that Gonzalez had failed to show misconduct in his case. In December 2016, the First District Illinois Appellate Court upheld the dismissal in a split decision. Presiding Justice Michael Hyman dissented.

“Newly discovered evidence demonstrates Detective Guevara engaged in a pattern and practice of framing suspects by orchestrating false identifications against them,” Justice Hyman wrote. “His unlawful and disgraceful conduct casts an ugly pall over any case he worked on, most notably between about 1982 and 2005, the year he retired with a full police pension. A conviction corrupted by law enforcement misconduct must not be let to stand as it undermines the very core of the legal system, and threatens the public’s perception of the fairness and credibility of the entire criminal justice process.”

In 2018, Bonjean and Cohen filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus, challenging the Appellate Court’s ruling. That case was still pending in February 2023, when Bonjean and Cohen filed another post-conviction petition. “It is axiomatic at this point that both…Guevara and Halvorsen engaged in a pattern and practice of misconduct,” the petition said.

The petition noted that the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office had announced it would no longer stand by the work of Guevara. On August 9, 2022, the office had dismissed eight homicide convictions related to Guevara’s misconduct. By the end of that year, more than 30 men and women whose convictions were based on misconduct by Guevara, some of them involving Halvorsen as well, had been vacated and dismissed.

The petition noted that Guevara and Halvorsen had been deposed under oath during civil lawsuits brought against them by some of the exonerated people. Both had invoked their Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination when asked about their conduct in numerous cases, including the prosecution of Gonzalez. The detectives refused to answer questions about whether they had influenced Marrero and Rodriguez to falsely identify Gonzalez as the gunman.

The petition alleged that the detectives asked Rodriguez if she saw anyone in the gang book that she recognized. When she said she recognized Gonzalez, they reported that she had identified him as the gunman. The petition also alleged that the detectives falsely told Marrero that they knew who the shooter was and that they had other evidence that Gonzalez was the gunman.

The petition also was accompanied by a report from Dr. Jennifer Dysart, an eyewitness identification expert from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Dr. Dysart said there were numerous factors that undercut the reliability of the identifications, including the time of day, the lack of lighting, focus on the weapon, Intoxication, and the use of a photographic lineup that was “extremely suggestive.”

Dr. Dysart also noted, “Mr. Marrero allegedly requested that all of the lineup members smile, which they did. Here, he should have seen that Mr. Gonzalez did not have a gold tooth as he had described seeing on the shooter.”

On August 28, 2023, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office agreed to vacate Gonzalez’s convictions.

Subsequently, Bonjean filed a motion seeking a hearing to suppress the eyewitness identifications based on Dr. Dysart’s conclusions and Guevara and Halvorsen’s history of coercing false identifications from witnesses.

A hearing was never held. On January 23, 2024, the prosecution dismissed the charges, and Gonzalez was released. He had spent more than 24 years in prison since his first conviction.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 1/31/2024
Last Updated: 1/31/2024
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempted Murder
Reported Crime Date:1998
Sentence:42 years
Age at the date of reported crime:21
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No