It took several hours after their murder convictions were vacated, but by 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Jose Montanez and Armando Serrano were released from prison.
By then they’d been waiting 23 years for justice. They’d served nearly half of a 55-year sentence for a murder they didn’t commit.
Meanwhile, scores of Latino men serving long sentences – who, like Montanez and Serrano, maintain they were railroaded by disgraced Chicago police Detective Reynaldo Guevara – continue to wait.
Among them are Gabriel Solache and Arturo DeLeon-Reyes, whose long-sought hearing on whether their confessions were coerced by Guevara is scheduled for Thursday morning. (On Thursday morning, prosecutors requested a postponement.)
On Wednesday morning, the Cook County State’s Attorney moved to vacate Montanez and Serrano’s conviction in the 1993 murder of Rodrigo Vargas. Following “a very thorough review of this case,” prosecutors “determined that we are unable to meet our burden of proof at this time, so we believe that it is in the best interest of justice to dismiss the case,” a spokesperson for State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez told The Chicago Reporter.
Not much has changed in the case since 2004, when the witness who identified Montanez and Serrano recanted his testimony in a statement to the Medill Innocence Project. Nor has anything changed since an independent review of Guevara’s cases in 2014 by former U.S. Attorney Scott Lassar found that Montanez and Serrano were probably innocent. (The city has refused to release the Lassar report.)
Alvarez refused to reopen the case after the Lassar report, and continued to fight post-conviction motions for evidentiary hearings by the two men’s lawyers. It was only after an appeals court ruled they were entitled to hearings that Alvarez decided to cut her losses.
As in so many of Guevara’s cases, no physical evidence linked the suspect to the crime. The witness upon whose testimony their conviction was based said Guevara told him what to say and promised he’d get a break on his own armed robbery charge.
Attorneys argued that this was a pattern that appeared again and again in Guevara’s cases.
“What is new here that wasn’t known 12 years ago?” asked Rob Warden, the veteran journalist who is now co-director of Injustice Watch.
Alvarez’s Conviction Integrity Unit “really stands in the way of any relief, unless it begins to look like they’re going to lose, then they throw in the towel and try to take credit for exonerating someone,” he said. “The CIU is pretty much a joke, and everybody knows it’s a joke.”
One advocate points to a parallel situation in New York. “It would be logical for [the State’s Attorney] to do what the Brooklyn district attorney has done with the cases of Det. Louis Scarcella, where they’ve gone and reinvestigated all of the guy’s cases,” said Karen Daniel, director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern School of Law and attorney for Solache.
Scarcella, who’s reported to have extracted false testimony in dozens of murder cases, has so far cost New York taxpayers $24 million in wrongful conviction lawsuits. Over 50 convictions are under review, and so far six have been overturned.
In two years Brooklyn DA Kenneth Thompson’s Conviction Review Unit has exonerated 19 men and one woman. It’s considered a national model. “We need to acknowledge that wrongful convictions destroy the lives of those wrongfully convicted and their families,” he recently told WNYC. “They also undermine the integrity of the criminal justice system.”
Alvarez has about six months left in office. I don’t know if she cares about her legacy. But she is sworn to uphold justice, and there are innocent men rotting in prison waiting for it.