Four men convicted of murder released from prison after judges find they can’t trust the work of detectives in two cases

All four men had maintained their innocence and all four had claimed Chicago police coerced them into confessing.

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Family and friends of John Galvan and Arthur Almendarez wait outside Cook County Jail for their release Thursday evening.

Family and friends of John Galvan and Arthur Almendarez wait for their release outside Cook County Jail on Thursday evening.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Four men convicted of murder were released from prison Friday after Cook County judges, ruling in two cases, found they could not trust the police work that put the men behind bars for decades.

Arthur Almendarez and John Galvan walked across a deserted street outside Cook County Jail early Friday, their first taste of freedom since they were convicted of a fatal fire 35 years ago.

Later in the day, brothers Juan and Rosendo Hernandez left the Dixon Correctional Center after spending 25 years for a fatal shooting.

All four men had maintained their innocence and all four had claimed Chicago police coerced them into confessing.

“This highlights how broken CPD is and how broken this city is,” said attorney Joshua Tepfer with the Exoneration Project.

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The Hernandez brothers were released after Judge Joanne Rosado overturned their murder convictions in a 1997 shooting and ordered a new trial for both.

But soon after, prosecutors announced they would not pursue the case further, noting past allegations of misconduct against disgraced former Chicago police detective Reynaldo Guevara, who handled the brothers’ case.

“Based on our review of this case, which included allegations of misconduct involving Detective Guevara, we agree with the judge’s decision and noted on the record that we will not pursue a new trial,” the Cook County state’s attorney’s office said in a statement.

The Hernandez brothers will now seek a certificate of innocence so they can be fully exonerated, their attorneys said.

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Juan Hernandez (left) embraces his son, Donnovan, for the first time in 25 years.

Provided by Josh Tepfer

In a video released by their attorneys Friday, family members could be seen cheering the brothers as they were released and embracing them.

“Free at last,” their mother said repeatedly through tears.

The brothers maintain they were framed by Guevara in an act of revenge at the behest of another former Chicago cop — Officer Joseph Miedzianowski — who federal prosecutors have called the “most corrupt” police officer ever prosecuted at the downtown federal courthouse.

At a hearing last month, a witness testified that Guevara was going to help Miedzianowski — a former gang unit detective — get Juan Hernandez for stealing marijuana from a dealer who worked for Miedzianowski.

Miedzianowski is serving a life sentence for running a drug trafficking and protection racket during the 1990s.

More than 20 people convicted in cases tied to Guevara have been exonerated, according to the Exoneration Project.

Guevara has been repeatedly accused of engaging in misconduct, including fabricating evidence and police reports, and coercing witnesses to make identifications, sometimes using violence, according to court records.

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Rosendo Hernandez hugs his mother Friday outside the Dixon Correctional Center after a judge overturned his conviction in a 1997 murder a day earlier.

Provided by Josh Tepfer

In the case of Almendarez and Galvan, the two were convicted of first-degree murder and arson after a fire killed two brothers in September 1986.But an appeals court questioned the evidence gathered against them by police, and a judge decided Friday they should be released while prosecutors decide their next move.

“I still don’t believe this is happening right now,” Almendarez said shortly after midnight as he left Cook County Jail. “I didn’t think they’d ever let me out. I still don’t know how to be free.”

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Arthur Almendarez talks with family and friends after being released from Cook County Jail early Friday.

Kaitlin Washburn | Sun-Times

Galvan was released about an hour later, declining to speak as he was greeted by family and friends.

Almendarez and Galvan will appear in court July 21 for a status hearing. Attorneys for both men hope their cases will be dropped.“We will continue to fight for them until they are found fully innocent,” said Tara Thompson, an attorney with the Innocence Project.

Thompson first took up the case in 2008. She later partnered with Tepferto work on both men’s cases.“I’m hopeful next week will go well. The evidence is very clear that these men are innocent,” Tepfer said.

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John Galvan with his attorney Tara Thompson.

Kaitlin Washburn | Sun-Times

On Sept. 21, 1986, two men were killed in a fire at 2603 W. 24th Place. Investigators suspected arson, and nine months later, Almendarez and Galvan were arrested. They were convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole for first-degree murder and aggravated arson.

The two have maintained their innocence and claim two detectives coerced them into signing confessions.

An appellate judge ruled there was no other evidence aside from those signed statements connecting the men to the crime and a new trial was needed. The court cited the detectives’ history of forcing confessions.

“Serving a life sentence without parole for a crime you didn’t commit is not easy,” Almendarez said. “I’ve tried not to let the anger poison my soul. But I have been so mad.”

Among those waiting for was John Horton, who became friends with Almendarez in 1995 when they were both in jail. Horton said he was wrongfully convicted as a teenager for a 1993 murder and robbery in Rockford. He was freed 23 years later, in February 2017, after Tepfer and the Exoneration Project took up his case.

Following his release, Horton told Tepfer about Almendarez and the Exoneration Project took his case.

“Arthur’s release is a joyous and painful feeling,” Horton said. “He and I bonded right away when we met, and we didn’t even know the other was innocent right away.”

Lydia Villalobos, Almendarez’s sister, was also outside the jail waiting for her brother. She was 11 when he was jailed.

“We have tried to keep the faith, year after year, trial after trial,” she said. “Our mom has passed away, and she would always say that he’s coming home.”

Villalobos came prepared Thursday. She had a change of clothes for her brother and a bottle of cologne he requested. She was the first to hug him as he walked out of the jail gates.

“I have to learn how to be free, how to be a man,” Almendarez said. “I was 20 years old when I went in and all I’ve learned is how to be a convict.”

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