Reynaldo Guevara spent more than 30 years as a cop assigned to Humboldt Park during some of the bloody 1990s gang wars in the Northwest Side neighborhood. The veteran detective was known to prosecutors for making cases, but the 73-year-old retiree had a different reputation among the 70-plus people who filled a courtroom at the Leighton Criminal Court Building on Monday.
Those in the packed gallery remained riveted for more than two hours during a hearing on a request for a new trial by Roberto Almodovar and William Negron, two men convicted in a 1994 murder who claim Guevara tampered with witnesses in their case.
The audience was ready with a quick reply when prosecutor Celeste Stack posed a rhetorical question and she defended the decades-old conviction, and Guevara’s detective work.
“Is [Guevara] a bad cop? Am I defending a guy like that?” Stack said, facing Judge James B. Linn.
“Yeah,” came rumbling reply from the gallery, drawing a reproach from Linn.
“Have you read the files?” Stack said, turning to the gallery, earning a reproach from the judge. “I’ve read the files, not just sound bites.”
Stack’s line of argument had been effective in turning back Almodovar’s bid for a new trial several years ago, when a witness recanted his identification, claiming Guevara had steered him to pick Almodovar and Negron out of a lineup. But the State’s Attorney’s Office may struggle to fight back a mounting number of appeals court rulings that have found that Guevara strong-armed witnesses and pinned murders on innocent men.
Linn said he would issue a ruling on whether to grant the two men a new trial on April 20.
All told, the city has paid out nearly $20 million to settle lawsuits from men who claimed they were railroaded by Guevara in the 1990s, and the city also spent an additional $1.8 million on a report that found a “handful” of cases handled by Guevara were tainted by the detective’s misconduct.
Jose Montanez and Armando Serrano sat on opposite sides of the courtroom gallery Monday, nodding occasionally as lawyers Russell Ainsworth and Jennifer Bonjean argued for Negron and Almodovar. The pair were released from prison nine months ago, after spending 23 years behind bars based on a murder conviction based on Guevara’s detective work. Almodovar and Negron have served 23 years as well, for the murders of Jorge Rodriguez and Amy Merkes in a 1994 drive-by shooting.
“We’re just supporting the cause,” Serrano said, standing beside Montanez outside the courtroom. “These courtrooms are full of corruption. I know what it’s like to spend 23 years in prison for something you didn’t do.”
Three years ago, Linn had denied Almodovar a new trial, an appeal then based on a key witness claiming that Guevara had showed him pictures of the two men and told him “those are the guys that did it.” Guevara took the stand at that hearing and denied allegations he steered witness Kennelly Saez to finger Almodovar and Negron in a photo array.
But Guevara was not in the courtroom Monday, and he has refused to testify in the case and others, following a string of appeals court rulings in cases in which witnesses say they were bullied by the veteran detective. Guevara has responded to questions about Almodovar and Negron’s case by asserting his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, Ainsworth pointed out to the judge.
“The inference this court can only draw” from Guevara’s refusal to testify, Ainsworth said, “is he knows he was not telling the truth at trial and he was not telling the truth at the post-conviction hearing . . . and now he’s unwilling to stand up in court.”
Stack claims that a more likely reason for witnesses to recant is pressure from the street gangs that Guevara spent years battling on the the streets, as well as headlines about the multimillion-dollar settlements going to defendants in wrongful conviction cases.
“People do incredible things for $20 million. . . . That kind of money out there is a huge motivator,” Stack said. “So many cases and the facts are so detailed, but when you delve into it, the stories don’t hold up.”