Roberto Almodovar stepped into the afternoon sunlight outside the Cook County Jail on Friday, smiling broadly as he walked toward the tower gates facing South California Avenue. Peering back at him through the black metal bars, bobbing anxiously, was his daughter, Jasmyn.
Four hours earlier, prosecutors formally ended more than two years of fierce opposition to Almodovar’s bid to overturn his 1994 conviction in a double-murder case that was tainted by allegations of misconduct by veteran Chicago Police Detective Reynaldo Guevara. At a brief hearing Friday, Judge James Linn tossed Almodovar’s conviction and ordered his release after 23 years in prison.
Jasmyn, 23, was six months old when her father was arrested. Her earliest memories of her 41-year-old father are six-hour drives to Menard prison, and brief meetings in a visitation area. Guards allowed her to hug him once, at the end of every visit.
Seeing her father walk through the doors of the jail Friday, she sprinted toward him and leapt into his arms.
“I knew I was going to beat this case,” Almodovar told reporters. “I just didn’t know when.”
As recently as Monday, it appeared that Almodovar had, at least, another week behind bars. Lawyers for Almodovar and co-defendant William Negron, who both had been sentenced to life in prison, had spent more than two hours sparring with Assistant State’s Attorney Celeste Stack at a hearing before Linn, who had planned to rule on the case next week.
Linn said he’d gotten a call from a top deputy of State’s Attorney Kim Foxx the day after that hearing, informing the judge they were dropping the case. The judge said he was “stunned and dismayed” by the move, but gave no indication how he might have ruled.
“I have never seen anything like this,” Linn said from the bench Friday.
“This is the most contentious, hard-fought litigation I have ever seen,” Linn said, citing days of hearings and testimony about the decades old case. “The lawyers aggressively went eyeball to eyeball with every witness in the case.”
Negron, who also is serving time for a second, unrelated murder, will remain in jail pending an appeal of his life sentence in that case, said his attorney, Russell Ainsworth.
Jennifer Bonjean, Almodovar’s lawyer, said she had expected the judge would have freed the two men, even if Foxx hadn’t withdrawn the case.
On Wednesday, Foxx’s office announced it was dropping its case against Almodovar and Negron “after a thorough and deliberate review of the evidence and arguments presented to the circuit court. . . . The State’s Attorney’s Office has concluded that the evidence presented could change the result of this case on retrial.”
Lawyers for Almodovar and Negron said the pair had been convicted based on witness statements that had been tainted by Guevara, a veteran detective who has been accused of railroading suspects in more than a dozen cases. Stack had argued that a key witness in Almodovar and Negron’s case had recanted only after being intimidated by a gang leader, and a second witness had never wavered in her belief that the two men were the killers in a drive-by shooting that killed Amy Merkes and Jorge Rodriguez.
The city of Chicago spent nearly $2 million to have former U.S. Attorney Scott Lassar review some 70 cases handled by Guevara, and last year received a report that a “handful” of convictions — including Almodovar’s — were likely bogus.
At least four defendants whose cases hinged on Guevara’s police work have been exonerated in recent years.
They include Jose Montanez and Armando Serrano, who were released from prison last year after serving 23 years for the 1993 murder of Rodrigo Vargas. In that case, a jailhouse informant who testified against the men recanted, saying that Guevara threatened and beat him until he agreed to say he’d heard Montanez and Serrano confess to killing Vargas during a stickup.
Serrano was standing on the scroungy grass outside the jail Friday, as Almodovar was mobbed by family. After more than two decades in prison, Serrano said coming to the courthouse to support Almodovar was difficult.
“All the guards, all the lines, all the things that happened to me in court . . . it’s hard,” said Serrano, who struggles with post-traumatic stress from years of living in a maximum-security lockup. “You lost all those years. It hasn’t been easy.”
Almodovar, decked head-to-toe in brand-new Adidas gear, said was heading to his aunt’s house in Humboldt Park, where he and Jasmyn’s mother, Azalia “Sassy” Carrillo, had lived when he was arrested.
His immediate plans included some Puerto Rican food, and some of his aunt’s “banana cream pie cake.”
“I’m definitely going to live my life to the fullest,” he said. “It’s a new start.”
While waiting for Almodovar to emerge from the jail, Carrillo had made note of the date.
“It’s Good Friday,” Carrillo noted. “Maybe today will be a full resurrection for him.”