Nearly 20 years ago, Roberto Almodovar was sentenced to life in prison for a gang-related double murder in Humboldt Park.
Now imprisoned at Menard Correctional Center, Almodovar has long insisted he is innocent and was framed by a since-retired Chicago police detective, Reynaldo Guevara, who has been accused of railroading other murder suspects.
Almodovar’s conviction is now among cases that the city of Chicago has turned over to Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s office for a fresh look, at the urging of ex-U.S. Attorney Scott Lassar.
The Emanuel administration hired Lassar to investigate after two murder convictions were vacated in part because of allegations of misconduct concerning Guevara.
Why Lassar flagged Almodovar’s conviction isn’t clear, though a 2013 Illinois Appellate Court opinion called evidence in the case “tenuous” and questioned Guevara’s investigative methods.
Attorneys for Almodovar and his co-defendant William Negron say Guevara railroaded their clients and are asking Cook County Circuit Judge James Linn to grant them new trials.
The state’s attorney’s office has defended Guevara and the Almodovar and Negron convictions.
That shows the state’s attorney’s office has a conflict of interest, Almodovar’s attorney Jennifer Bonjean says.
“It’s like defending and prosecuting a case at the same time,” Bonjean says.
She’s asking Cook County Circuit Judge Paul Biebel Jr., the presiding judge of criminal court, to take the case from Alvarez and appoint an outside special prosecutor. Biebel hasn’t ruled on Bonjean’s March 16 motion.
Lassar and his law firm, Sidley Austin LLP, reviewed more than 70 cases involving Guevara and concluded that a “handful” merit further review, a spokeswoman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel said earlier this month. The findings were turned over to the state’s attorney’s office.
City officials and prosecutors have declined to identify the cases.
But Bonjean says prosecutors confirmed to her that Almodovar is among the “handful,” and three Almodovar family members signed affidavits saying the state’s attorney’s office told them the case is now being re-investigated.
Lassar didn’t ask prosecutors to review co-defendant Negron’s case, though, attorney Russell Ainsworth says.
“There’s no legitimate reason to question the conviction of Almodovar but not Negron,” says Ainsworth, a lawyer with the firm Loevy & Loevy who is representing Negron. “Both were convicted on the same set of facts that were concocted by Guevara.”
An Emanuel spokeswoman wouldn’t comment. Lassar didn’t return messages.
“We have no comment on the specific cases as our review continues,” says Alvarez spokesman Sally Daly.
The city has paid nearly $20 million to investigate, defend and settle misconduct allegations against Guevara, who retired from the Chicago Police Department in 2005 and worked until recently handling security for the Chicago Park District.
Guevara, who couldn’t be reached for comment, has been accused of concealing evidence, beating people and coercing testimony from suspects and witnesses. In court depositions, he has refused to answer questions, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Almodovar, 39, has spent half his life in prison, convicted of killing two people and wounding another in a drive-by shooting Sept. 1, 1994. He and Negron never confessed. No weapon was recovered, and there’s no physical evidence linking them to the shootings. Almodovar’s girlfriend and family said he was home when the shooting happened, according to interviews and records.
“He was definitely home at the time,” says Almodovar’s aunt Mary Rodriguez, who lived with him. “Never would I have thought he would’ve been charged with murder. We’re devastated, but we haven’t given up hope. And neither has he.”
The convictions were based on two witnesses who identified Negron as the driver of a blue Oldsmobile that stopped in front of a Humboldt Park home and Almodovar as the man who opened fire in what prosecutors said was a gang-related shooting.
But court testimony “has cast doubt upon Detective Guevara’s method of obtaining those identifications,” the appellate court opinion said, noting that Guevara might have improperly steered witnesses toward suspects.
Witness statements obtained by Guevara also differed from statements obtained by other officers.
“If the jury had known about Detective Guevara’s history of improperly influencing witnesses . . . they might have given more weight to the testimony of defendant’s alibi witnesses than to the identifications that Detective Guevara procured,” the opinion said.
One of the two witnesses has said Guevara showed him pictures of Almodovar and Negron and said, “These were the guys.” The witness picked Almodovar and Negron in a lineup, but, six months later, signed an affidavit saying he was wrong.
The witness testified anyway against Almodovar and Negron and said he signed the affidavit under pressure from a gang leader.
“I don’t know if they were innocent,” he said at a more recent court hearing. “All I know is that I didn’t see what I said I saw.”
This article was written by Andrew Schroedter of the Better Government Association.