By Pamela Cytrynbaum
CHICAGO INNOCENCE CENTER’S 5TH AND 6TH EXONERATIONS IN 5 YEARS
A judge took less than five minutes to undo nearly a quarter-century of injustice. Armando Serrano and Jose Montanez walked out of prison as free men Wednesday, marking the 5th and 6th exonerations for the Chicago Innocence Center since our 2011 founding.
"At long last, freedom for these innocent men whose cause we've embraced for 14 years. All exonerations are extraordinary but the case of Armando Serrano and Jose Montanez is singular in the obstacles that were placed in the way of justice. After nearly a quarter century, more than 30 investigative reporting students helped expose a corrupt cop who specialized in railroading innocents, a lying jailhouse snitch, and a state's attorney who obstructed justice at every turn. But the truth prevailed, thanks to heroic pro-bono attorneys and a family who never gave up hope," said David Protess, Chicago Innocence Center founder and president.
The release is a stunning reversal after years of obstruction by Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. Judge Leroy Martin Jr. — presiding judge of the Criminal Division of the Cook County Circuit Court – vacated the convictions of Serrano, 44, and Montanez, 49, and ordered the men released. Prosecutors said they would dismiss the charges.
“The Board and Staff of the Chicago Innocence Center are overjoyed by this news and are proud that our investigative reporting and discovery of evidence of innocence contributed to the repair of this profound injustice,” said Pamela Cytrynbaum, Chicago Innocence Center executive director. “We extend grateful congratulations to the tireless attorneys, Jennifer Bonjean and Russell Ainsworth, and the Bonjean Law Group and the Exoneration Project for their tremendous work.”
More than two decades ago the men were sentenced to 55 years in prison in the killing of a Humboldt Park man. There were no eyewitnesses or physical evidence linking them to the 1993 fatal shooting of Rodrigo Vargas. Serrano and Montanez proclaimed their innocence since their 1994 convictions, which hinged on uncorroborated testimony from a jailhouse informant — an informant who recanted to students of David Protess. The informant said Reynaldo Guevara, a former Chicago Police detective long-accused of framing the innocent, forced him to falsely implicate Serrano and Montanez. Guevara has since been the subject of an unprecedented probe.
Protess, who with his students have continued to investigate this case for more than a decade, exposed the new evidence of innocence and the official misconduct in a series of award-winning columns for the Huffington Post. Read more >>
Two CIC Board Members Investigated Serrano Case as Students
Julia Lissner and Molly Lynch are two former Protess students who played key roles in the original investigation of Serrano’s case in 2003, are now Chicago attorneys and members of the Chicago Innocence Center Board of Directors.
“As a current Board member of the Chicago Innocence Center, and as a former journalism student investigating this case back in college in 2003-2004, I am so thrilled to learn of Armando Serrano's release. I applaud the leadership of David Protess and Pamela Cytrynbaum and their many years of tireless work to uncover the truth in this case and finally obtain justice. They never gave up on Armando, and this triumph highlights why innocence projects are so important,” said Julia Lissner.
“The system has failed Armando Serrano at every turn for more than two decades. The court's decision today is the start of a course correction that is long, long overdue. While there is nothing to celebrate about a wrongful conviction, there is plenty to celebrate on a day like today when the system finally gets it right,” said Molly Lynch.
Case Makes National News
In an unprecedented development, the students’ findings were confirmed by former U. S. Attorney Scott Lassar and a team of Chicago attorneys. City Hall hired Lassar and attorneys from Sidley Austin LLP in 2013 to investigate the misconduct allegations involving disgraced Chicago Police Department detective, Reynaldo Guevara — who has been accused of railroading numerous murder suspects. The investigation has cost Chicago taxpayers more than $1.8 million. Lassar and his team found at least four cases of men they deemed more likely than not to be innocent — including Serrano and Montanez. A key finding was significant misconduct by Guevara — the same detective who already has had two murder cases overturned. Lassar recommended the cases be reviewed by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office to determine if they were wrongfully convicted. Alvarez refused, her office claiming they saw no evidence of innocence. So far, Chicago has paid $19.8 million to investigate, defend and settle allegations against Guevara. Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez lost her bid for re-election in the Illinois Democratic primary in March 2016.