Prosecutors Revisit ‘94 Murder Conviction

State’s attorney’s office is reviewing case amid allegations that an ex-Chicago cop framed two suspects who have long proclaimed their innocence.

Armando Serrano (left) and Jose Montanez

Armando Serrano and Jose Montanez were each sentenced to 55 years in prison for the killing of a Humboldt Park man.

Serrano and Montanez, who have proclaimed their innocence, never confessed and there were no eyewitnesses or physical evidence linking them to the 1993 fatal shooting of Rodrigo Vargas, court filings show.

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Reynaldo Guevara

Their convictions, in 1994, hinged on uncorroborated testimony from a jailhouse informant who has since recanted and claims then-Chicago Detective Reynaldo Guevara forced him to falsely implicate Serrano and Montanez.

Now, the Better Government Association has learned the Serrano-Montanez convictions are among the "handful" of Guevara cases the Cook County state’s attorney’s office is reviewing at the request of the Emanuel administration.

The point of that review is to determine whether Serrano, Montanez and others were wrongfully convicted at the hands of Cook County prosecutors and Guevara, who retired in 2005 and until last year worked as a Chicago Park District security guard.

Two of Guevara’s murder cases already have been overturned and in court filings the former Area 5 detective has been accused of railroading numerous other suspects. Chicago’s municipal government has already paid nearly $20 million to investigate, defend and settle Guevara-related misconduct claims, records show.

It couldn’t be determined why the Serrano-Montanez case was flagged but a likely reason is the uncorroborated testimony from an informant who in return for taking the stand received a reduced prison sentence and other perks, a controversial practice that about a dozen states now limit because of concerns about reliability.

"The criminal system incurs enormous risk when it pays witnesses for testimony," says Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Marymount Law School in Los Angeles and author of a book about criminal informants. She isn’t involved in this case and was briefed on it by the BGA. "As a matter of common sense it seems like a risky proposition."

Says Russell D. Covey, a Georgia State University law professor and wrongful convictions expert: "It’s hard to imagine testimony that is less credible than that of a jailhouse informant. They have overwhelming incentives to make stuff up."

The informant, Francisco Vicente, was facing multiple armed robbery charges when he testified in 1994 that Serrano and Montanez told him they murdered Vargas, according to court filings.

He now says, "That testimony was false in all respects . . . [and] was given as a result of threats, intimidation and abuse by Det. Reynaldo Guevara," according to a 2004 affidavit obtained by Northwestern University journalism students who had been looking into possible wrongful convictions.

In 2013 Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel asked ex-U.S. Attorney Scott Lassar and his law firm, Sidley Austin LLP, to review some of Guevara’s cases. The city wants to determine the scope of possible police misconduct – to not only ensure there aren’t innocent people imprisoned but to confront the potential legal liability, officials said. That probe concluded earlier this year with Lassar identifying a "handful" that merited further review by the state’s attorney’s office, an Emanuel spokeswoman has said. The state’s attorney’s office initially prosecuted Serrano and Montanez as part of an investigation led by Guevara. See related article here.

The lead prosecutor in the case was Matthew Coghlan, who now is a Cook County judge handling criminal cases, records show. Coghlan declined to comment.

City Hall has repeatedly declined to release Lassar’s findings or identify the cases he flagged. But through court records the BGA has confirmed Serrano and Montanez are among the "handful."

"We are still in the process of reviewing the materials and we have no further comment at this time," says Sally Daly, spokeswoman for State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.

The BGA previously reported that Lassar also questioned Roberto Almodovar’s conviction. Almodovar has served 20 years in prison for a 1994 gang-related killing – he claims he’s innocent and was framed by Guevara.

Reached by phone, Guevara declined to comment to a reporter. In court depositions, he’s refused to answer questions, citing his constitutional right against self-incrimination.

Vargas was shot the morning of Feb. 5, 1993, while he warmed up his van outside his Humboldt Park home. Police had no real leads. Neighbors heard gunshots but didn’t see the shooter and offered only a rough description of a getaway vehicle: A brown sedan, possibly a Chevrolet, according to court filings.

The killing went unsolved for four months until Guevara took over the investigation. At the time, Vicente was in Cook County Jail on charges of armed robbery. While incarcerated Vicente met with Guevara.

Vicente says the detective told him Serrano, Montanez and a third man had killed Vargas in a stick up.

Vicente didn’t witness the shooting but amid threats and physical abuse by Guevara says he agreed to say the men told him they shot Vargas, according to court filings.

"In exchange for my fabricated testimony, I was told by Guevara that my armed robbery cases would work out fine for me," Vicente says in the affidavit.

Serrano, 42, and Montanez, 47, have each spent 20 years in prison. The third man Vicente implicated was ultimately acquitted of the charges.

Vicente, meanwhile, received a nine-year sentence for multiple armed robbery counts. In Illinois, that charge is a Class X felony; each offense is punishable by up to 30 years in prison, according to interviews and records.

While waiting to testify, Vicente was housed in protected witness quarters, where he received cigarettes, a radio, cash and more, court filings show.

Vicente couldn’t be reached for comment. During a 2013 court hearing he refused to answer questions about the Serrano-Montanez case, citing his constitutional right against self-incrimination, according to interviews and records.

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This column – a regular feature called The Public Eye, appearing in the Chicago Sun-Times – was written and reported by the Better Government Association's Andrew Schroedter, who can be reached at aschroedter@bettergov.org or (312) 821-9035.