Murder charges dropped after man imprisoned 30 years: ‘I’m not bitter’

Francisco Benitez, 53, was 18 years old when he was arrested and later convicted in the 1989 fatal shootings of two teens. He has long maintained his innocence.

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Francisco “Frankie” Benitez, speaks to the media on Tuesday following a hearing at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse when the Cook County state’s attorney’s office announce they would be dropping charges in his case, a month after a judge vacated his conviction in a 1989 shooting of two teenagers and ordered a new trial.

Francisco “Frankie” Benitez, speaks to the media Tuesday after a hearing at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse where the Cook County state’s attorney’s office announce it drop charges in his murder case.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A visit to his sister in Arkansas. A vacation with his mother to Disney World. Catching a Chicago Bears game.

Francisco “Frankie” Benitez said he wanted to do all those things and more with his freedom after Cook County prosecutors announced Tuesday they were dropping the charges that had kept him behind bars for three decades.

“It took 34 years but it happened. I never thought it would,” Benitez said as he stood before a row of news cameras in the lobby of the Leighton Criminal Courthouse shortly after the hearing ended.

Benitez, 53, was released on bond last month after Judge Sophia Atcherson vacated his murder conviction in the 1989 fatal shootings of Prudencio Cruz and William Sanchez, both 14.

Benitez, who was 18 when he was arrested, has long maintained his innocence.

Atcherson cited testimony from witnesses who identified a different person as the shooter, as well as a “pattern and practice” of police misconduct by detectives Jerome Bogucki and Raymond Schalk that allegedly led to a coerced confession.

Benitez also had the backing of former Chicago police gang investigator Joe Sparks, 80, who told Benitez’s family he thought police got the wrong guy.

Sparks signed an affidavit to that effect last year, telling the court he had “strong doubts Frankie committed this crime.”

“In all my years, this was the only case that haunted me, and I tried for years to get someone to look at it again,” Sparks told the Chicago Sun-Times. “Well, someone finally did.”

Defense attorney Joshua Tepfer said Benitez would now seek a certificate of innocence, the final step to clearing his name.

Francisco “Frankie” Benitez with his mom Betty Benitez after his hearing Tuesady at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse.

Francisco “Frankie” Benitez with his mom Betty Benitez after his hearing Tuesady at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

After his release last month on bond, Benitez said he’s relied on his family to help him settle into life outside of prison.

“At first it was hard adjusting to everything,” he said. “It’s different. They didn’t have cellphones, well, they did, but they were the suitcase ones.”

Benitez said he was in a good place and “wanted to take on” the adult responsibilities he missed out on growing up while incarcerated.

“I’m not bitter,” he said. “I think the system needs to be fixed. It’s very broken. There’s more guys like me going through this.”

His advice to them: “Keep the faith.”

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