Cook County Circuit Judge Matthew Coghlan has denied in a court filing he helped frame two innocent men for murder 25 years ago.
Armando Serrano and Jose Montanez contend in federal lawsuits that Coghlan, as an assistant state’s attorney, and a second prosecutor took part in a June 2, 1993, meeting at which a robbery suspect has said disgraced former Chicago police Detective Reynaldo Guevara and his partner encouraged the suspect to falsely implicate Serrano and Montanez in a murder.
Coghlan and the other former assistant Cook County state’s attorney, John Dillon, both deny in court filings that they met that day with the robbery suspect, Francisco Vicente.
Coghlan, who’s facing a retention vote in November, states in his answer that Chicago police Detective Ernest Halvorsen, who was Guevara’s partner, met with Vicente but that Coghlan “was unaware of Vicente or that Vicente made any statements regarding the Vargas murder until after a grand jury had already indicted Serrano” in the February 1993 shooting death of Rodrigo Vargas.
Serrano was indicted on July 26, 1993.
In his answer, Dillon said that Vicente was brought that day to the state’s attorney’s office but denies he “was present for, or participated in any meeting(s) with, Vicente, Coghlan, Detective Guevara or Detective Halvorsen on June 2, 1993.”
According to court records, despite those denials, Vicente saw both Dillon and Coghlan on June 2, 1993 — the day, police reports say, that Vicente first implicated Serrano, Montanez, and Jorge Pacheco in Rodrigo Vargas’ killing. But the records don’t show Coghlan and Dillon were present as Guevara fed Vicente a fabricated story implicating Serrano, Montanez and Pacheco.
Through a spokesperson, Coghlan declined to comment, citing the pending litigation. His attorney didn’t return calls. Nor did Dillon’s.
The Serrano and Montanez lawsuits have been cited, among other issues, by groups campaigning against Coghlan’s retention.
Vargas’s killing went unsolved for four months after his body was found in his van in Humboldt Park.
On May 14, 1993, Vicente was charged with four robberies authorities said he committed to fuel his heroin addiction.
Guevara and Halvorsen soon secured a statement from Vicente that, while in custody, he heard a man named Roberto Bouto confess to killing a man named Salvador Ruvalcaba. Vicente testified before a grand jury in May 1993, and Bouto was indicted.
Vicente notified the detectives a few weeks later, according to their report, that Bouto’s lawyer had visited him in jail to get his help on Bouto’s behalf, providing money and promises of favors, according to a report by Halvorsen and Guevara that said the detectives arranged to have Vicente transported to the state’s attorney’s gang prosecution unit, where he was “interviewed . . . by Det E. Halvorsen and A.S.A. John Dillon.”
In a police report that day, Guevara and Halvorsen said a “circumstantial witness who for his own safety must remain anonymous at this time” had implicated Serrano, Pacheco and Montanez in Vargas’ killing. Weeks later, a handwritten statement prepared by the witness with Halvorsen and a prosecutor identified the “circumstantial witness” as Vicente.
Dillon prosecuted Bouto. Coghlan prosecuted the three suspects in Vargas’ murder.
Testifying at the October 1994 trial of Serrano, Montanez and Pacheco, Vicente was asked by Coghlan why he was in the state’s attorney’s office on June 2, 1993 — the day he implicated the three men.
Question: Were you in the State’s Attorney’s office on that day?
Answer: Yes, sir.
A: I was talking to a State’s Attorney.
Q: Which State’s Attorney?
A: I was talking to you.
Q: Was that on this case or another case?
A: No, first I was talking to — first I started talking to John Dillon about the Robert Bouto case.
Q: On June 2nd were you up there talking to John Dillon, is that correct?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: On June 2nd, did you tell the detectives regarding your conversation with the defendant?
A: Yes, sir.
Serrano and Montanez were convicted in a bench trial before Judge Michael Bolan and sentenced to 55 years in prison. Pacheco was acquitted.
Ten years later, in 2003, Vicente told students from the Medill Justice Project at Northwestern University that Coghlan and Dillon were “sitting there listening” as Guevara fed Vicente a false story. He said Coghlan and Dillon wrote down his statement, and Guevara and Halvorsen coached him on what to say.
In 2013, as reports of Guevara’s misconduct piled up, the city hired the law firm Sidley Austin to review convictions tied to Guevara. Sidley lawyers’ notes show former Assistant State’s Attorney Celeste Stack told them Coghlan, Dillon and Halvorsen were present when Vicente first reported knowledge of the Vargas murder.
Stack declined to comment.
The Sidley report concluded Vicente’s testimony against Serrano and Montanez was likely fabricated. In 2016, the Illinois Appellate Court ordered a hearing on evidence Guevara and Halvorsen developed a wrongful conviction of Serrano and Montanez, calling the accusations “alarming acts of misconduct …which warrant closer scrutiny by appropriate authorities.”
Instead, then-State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez announced in July 2016 that, after a “very thorough review of the case,” her office was dropping charges in the interest of justice. Serrano and Montanez were released after 23 years in prison.
Mari Cohen is a reporter for Injustice Watch, a nonpartisan, not-for-profit journalism organization that conducts in-depth research to expose institutional failures that obstruct justice and equality.