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Miguel Morales

Other Cook County, Illinois exonerations with co-defendant confession
At about 1 p.m. on February 2, 1993, 19-year-old Hector Olague was fatally shot in the parking lot of the Short Stop Pizza Shop across the street from Marie Sklodowska Curie Metropolitan High School on the south side of Chicago, Illinois. He was a bystander caught between members of two gangs.

According to witnesses, the shooting followed an exchange of gang signs and slogans between members of the Latin Kings, who were in the parking lot, and members of the “Two Six” street gang. Fifteen-year-old Raphael Robinson was near the scene of the shooting. He noticed a car stopped at a red light. The people in the car exchanged words and gang signs with some of the pedestrians. He said he could not see the face of the driver of the car. Someone threw a brick at the car, and the car drove away. About five minutes later, Robinson noticed the same car. Robinson then saw a “Two-sixer” being chased by a gang of Latin Kings. Then, as Robinson turned his head, another “Two-sixer” fired shots at the Kings. He saw Hector Olague fall to the ground, shot once in the chest.

A week later, in the early morning hours of February 10, 1993, Chicago police detectives Kenneth Boudreau and John Halloran arrested 18-year-old John Willer, a member of the Two Six gang. After several hours in custody, Willer signed a statement claiming that 19-year-old Miguel Morales had admitted to Willer that Morales had fired the shots and had been accompanied by 20-year-old Nicholas Escamilla. After obtaining the statement, Willer went before a grand jury where he repeated the statement.

Based on the statement, Halloran, Boudreau, and several other detectives, including Bernard Ryan, arrested Escamilla on February 10. About 12 hours later, at about 5 a.m. on February 11, 1993, the detectives said Escamilla gave a court-reported statement. In the statement, Escamilla said that he drove Morales and 15-year-old Tyrone Reyna to the high school because Morales wanted to look for his girlfriend. In the statement, Escamilla said that he parked the car on a side street, and Reyna and Morales got out. In the statement, he said he saw Morales had a semi-automatic pistol in his waistband. He said he sat in the car with the windows rolled up, listening to music, and then heard three shots. He said that as he attempted to maneuver out of the parking place, Morales and Reyna jumped in the car and told him to leave quickly. In the statement, Escamilla said, "[Morales] said, 'I think I shot one of those Kings.'" Escamilla said he drove home and got out. Morales and Reyna then left.

In the statement, Escamilla said Morales came to his house on February 4. According to the statement, Morales said "he had killed a King at Curie High School."

On the morning of February 11, the detectives arrested Reyna, who had turned 16 on February 10. Within hours, Halloran and Ryan said that Reyna had confessed and signed a statement that repeated the facts recited in Escamilla’s statement. Morales was also arrested that day. During an interrogation by Halloran and other detectives, Morales denied involvement in the crime.

That same day, 15-year-old Raphael Robinson, who had been present at the shooting, viewed lineups. He identified Morales as the gunman and Reyna as the youth he had seen at the mouth of the alley who ran back as Latin King gang members approached. Robinson did not identify Escamilla.

On March 4, Morales was placed in another lineup, along with Reyna. Fifteen-year-old Shawn Hendricks, who also was present at the shooting, identified Morales and Reyna as the two youths in the alley.

On April 1, 1993, a Cook County grand jury indicted Reyna, Morales, and Escamilla on charges of first-degree murder. Reyna was charged as an adult.

Morales, Escamilla, Reyna, and Willer all asserted that they had been physically abused in the interrogation rooms by detectives including Boudreau, Halloran, and Ryan. They said variously that they were punched, spit on, slapped, and kicked.

Reyna claimed promises of leniency and that he could go home were alternated with threats of violence and actual physical abuse, as well as threats to arrest his family. Reyna said Halloran beat him on the head with a broken arm rest in a police car on the way to the station prior to interrogation. Reyna’s requests to see his mother were rebuffed, and he later said he was not read his Miranda warnings. He said he was on the north side of the city with relatives when the crime occurred, but that was ignored. He said Halloran pulled out his gun and pointed it at him. He was told he would never see his family again unless he confessed.

Escamilla claimed that he had been struck by detectives James O’Brien and Halloran. He said they threatened to arrest his wife and take away his daughter. His wife, who was pregnant, would have to give birth in the Cook County jail, the detectives told Escamilla. The detectives took him to stand in a lineup and afterward falsely told him that he had been identified.

Morales had refused to give an inculpatory statement even though he said detectives physically abused him.

Prior to the trials, Reyna filed a motion to suppress his confession. The motion was denied after detectives denied physically abusing him. Escamilla’s lawyer filed a motion to suppress his statement, but withdrew it and refiled it as a motion to suppress his warrantless arrest. That motion was denied. Morales filed a motion to suppress his identification by Hendricks, claiming that it was unfairly suggestive because he was wearing beige jail pants while the fillers were not. That motion was denied as well.

The detectives denied physically abusing any of the defendants, denied making promises, and denied making any threats.

In March 1994, Morales went to trial in Cook County Circuit Court. By that time, Willer had recanted his statement implicating Morales, Escamilla, and Reyna, claiming he had been physically abused by detectives during more than 20 hours of interrogation. He testified and claimed his statement was false. The prosecution was allowed to impeach him with his grand jury testimony and his handwritten statement given to Halloran.

Robinson and Hendricks testified and identified Morales as the gunman. Both were impeached by information in police reports tending to show that Morales did not match the physical description that Robinson and Hendricks had initially given police. Both witnesses were also impeached by differences between their initial statements to police and their trial testimony. On March 19, after a three-day trial that included jury deliberations over two of the days, the jury convicted Morales of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to 45 years in prison.

On April 18, 1994, Reyna pled guilty to first-degree murder. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Escamilla went to trial in May 1994. The prosecution relied primarily upon his confession. The defense noted that in his statement, Escamilla said Morales was carrying a semi-automatic pistol, but the autopsy showed that Olague was killed with a 38-caliber bullet. During the defense case, a Chicago police firearms analyst testified that the bullet could not have been fired by a semi-automatic weapon.

Escamilla testified that he did drive Morales’s car containing Morales and Reyna to the high school, but said there were no gang signs flashed or threats made. He denied that a brick was thrown at the car. He said he parked on a side street while Morales and Reyna went to look for Morales’s girlfriend. He said when he heard the shots, he tried to get out of the parking space and flee, but not before Reyna got into the car. Escamilla said he went home.

He said Morales later came to see him and was angry at being left behind. Escamilla said he was angry at Morales for exposing him to arrest.

Years later, Escamilla would assert that his testimony at trial was false.

On June 2, 1994, the jury convicted Escamilla of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to 29 years in prison.

All three convictions were upheld on appeal. Post-conviction motions to vacate their convictions were denied. Reyna’s post-conviction motion asserted that his trial defense lawyer never contacted his alibi witnesses. The motion included affidavits of three witnesses who supported his claim that he was at home asleep at the time the crime was committed.

Morales challenged his convictions based in part on a 2005 affidavit from Robinson, who recanted his identifications of Morales and Reyna. Robinson said he repeatedly told Halloran that he could not identify anyone. However, when taken back to a lineup, Robinson said detective O’Brien grabbed his neck and squeezed, while holding up three fingers and demanding, “How many fingers am I holding up?”

In the affidavit, Robinson said, “Det. O’Brien said, ‘We’re sure these are the guys. You’re gonna be sure.’”

“He was grabbing my neck real hard then, and it was hurting me and it was uncomfortable,” Robinson said. “I told O’Brien he was holding up 3 fingers, and O’Brien then shouted out, ‘He picked three,’ and all the other police officers there started shouting out the same—‘He picked three.’”

Robinson said the detectives then took him out of the room and told a prosecutor that he had picked three, which was Morales. “I never picked anyone out of the lineup,” Robinson said in the affidavit. “I was at the police station for 8 to 10 hours. I was shown 2 or 3 more lineups and the same thing occurred with different numbers of fingers being shown,” he said.

Morales, in maintaining his innocence, also provided affidavits from two witnesses who said he was with them at the time of the shooting.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune newspaper had published numerous articles about some of the detectives, particularly Halloran and Boudreau, and how they had physically abused suspects until they falsely confessed. One defendant claimed that his genitals had been zapped with a taser during interrogation. Another defendant, who falsely confessed, was acquitted at trial when DNA testing excluded him from the crime.

In 2012, Morales’s attorney obtained an affidavit from a former Chicago police gang crimes officer, who said that Hendricks was affiliated with the Insane POPES street gang. That gang, the former officer said, was premised on anti-Hispanic white supremacy. The former officer said that POPES stood for “Protect Our People Eliminate Spics.” Hendricks had testified at Morales’s trial that POPES stood for “Protect Our People Eliminate Scum.”

Morales, Escamilla, and Reyna served their sentences and were released on parole. Reyna was released on May 11, 2007. Escamilla was released on June 2, 2008. Morales was released on August 12, 2015.

In 2023, Escamilla’s attorney, Steven Becker, as well as Morales’s attorney, Elizabeth Mazur, and Reyna’s attorney, Sara Garber, filed petitions for post-conviction relief. The petitions cited the past histories of the detectives and their misconduct which had led to more than 10 other wrongful convictions, as well as the misconduct claimed in the interrogations of Morales, Escamilla, Reyna, and Willer.

Garber’s petition on behalf of Reyna declared, “Mr. Reyna’s arrest, confession, and his resulting pressure to accept a guilty plea were the end results of physical abuse, physical threats, and coercion at the hands of the Chicago police. They were also the results of the reality that judges and juries were unlikely, particularly at that time, to believe stories of police abuse like those told by Reyna and his co-defendants.”

Escamilla’s petition said, “If, in the early 1990s, when Mr. Escamilla’s case was litigated, the judge during a pretrial hearing on a motion to suppress statements or the jury was aware of the pattern and practice of egregious misconduct perpetrated by these detectives, the judge would have suppressed or the jury would have disregarded the false statement extracted by these detectives from Mr. Escamilla by means of repeated acts of physical abuse and threats of imprisoning his pregnant wife and sending his young daughter to a life in [Department of Children and Family Services] custody.”

Mazur argued in Morales’s petition that in the absence of evidence of past misconduct, “the jury naturally believed Detective Halloran over Willer, but this credibility determination likely would have gone the other way if the jury knew the truth about Halloran and Boudreau’s pattern of misconduct.”

On October 31, 2023, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office agreed that the convictions should be vacated. Cook County Circuit Court Judge Carol Howard vacated the convictions, and the prosecution dismissed the charges.

On June 12, 2024, Morales was granted a certificate of innocence, enabling him to file a claim for compensation from the state of Illinois.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 11/14/2023
Last Updated: 6/25/2024
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1993
Sentence:45 years
Age at the date of reported crime:19
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No