Two Chicago men who’ve spent 23 years behind bars for a 1993 murder in Humboldt Park were released from prison Wednesday afternoon, hours after a Cook County judge vacated their convictions.
Cook County Chief Criminal Judge LeRoy Martin issued the ruling Wednesday morning and prosecutors agreed to drop the charges against Jose Montanez, 49, and Armando Serrano, 44, according to Russell Ainsworth, an attorney with The Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago who represents Montanez.
A few hours later, more than a dozen family members greeted Montanez as he walked out of prison in Danville. Prison guards their horns and cheered as they drove past Montanez’s impromptu roadside press conference, Ainsworth said.
“He couldn’t quite believe what was happening,” Ainsworth said. “He welled up with tears when they asked him to state his name and date of birth for the last time, something he’d done thousands of times in the last 23 years.”
Serrano, Montanez’s co-defendant, was freed around the same time from the state prison in Dixon, Ainsworth said.
Both men had been convicted in the shooting death of Rodrigo Vargas and sentenced to 55 years in prison.
An Illinois Appellate Court decision handed down in June helped turn the tide for the two men, with the court ruling that the main witness against the two men had been coerced into lying by Chicago Police detective Reynaldo Guevara.
Without that testimony, and a growing body of cases that show Guevara bullied witnesses into giving bogus testimony, the case fell apart, Ainsworth said.
“I give the state’s attorney credit for dropping the case,” he said. “They struck a mark for justice today.”
A Better Government Investigation last year noted at least eight cases in which individuals, mostly Latino men, claimed they were wrongfully convicted in cases built by Guevara, and that the city had spent around $18 million on investigations of Guevara’s work and payouts for jury verdicts or settlements.
The city had spent $1.8 million on an outside law firm’s investigation of cases Guevara had handled, and that the city had recommended the Cook County State’s Attorney review and undisclosed number of convictions won based on evidence Guevara gathered. The bulk of the $18 million in costs the city attributed to misconduct allegations involving Guevara was a 2005 jury award for $15 million to Juan Johnson, a gang member who was framed by Guevara and served nearly 12 years in prison.
Ainsworth said he did not know if Montanez planned to sue for wrongful conviction.
“I’ll be sitting down with my client to discuss his options,” he said.