The Cook County State’s Attorney office Monday offered to let a convicted man who claims he was framed for murder by a rogue Chicago police officer out of prison — but to gain his freedom, he would have to plead to a crime he swears he did not commit.
So Roberto Almodovar said he will stay behind bars and fight to be declared innocent.
Almodovar is one of 51 people who have accused retired Chicago Police Detective Reynaldo Guevara of framing them in dozens of murders from the 1980s through the 2000s. The allegations against Guevara, and Almodovar’s case, were detailed in a BuzzFeed News investigation published last week.
“No thank you. I’m not pleading to something I didn’t do,” Almodovar said, according to his attorney Jennifer Bonjean. She added that she found it “traumatizing” to offer her client his freedom in exchange for his good name.
“If you told me I could walk out and see my family, I don’t think I’d have the strength to decline that,” she added.
Officials from the state’s attorney’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment. They made their offer at a hearing Monday to determine whether Almodovar, along with his co-defendant William Negron, should get a new trial because of the raft of misconduct allegations that have surfaced against Guevara. Those allegations were not known at the time of their 1995 trial, and would have changed its outcome, their attorneys argued.
Five people swear Almodovar was with them on the night two teenagers were shot and killed outside an apartment building in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood in the summer of 1994.
One of the two eyewitnesses in Almodovar’s case has since recanted. The witness, Kennelly Saez, says Guevara showed him pictures of Almodovar before the police lineup and then lied about it — a clear violation of police protocols. In 2015, an investigation commissioned by the city of Chicago found that Almodovar is more than likely innocent
And yet, Almodovar, now 42, remains in jail, 23 years into a life sentence. His daughter was six months old when he was arrested; she’s now 23.
In 2013, an appeals court ruled that there was enough evidence of possible misconduct by Guevara for a court to review whether Almodovar should get a new trial.
The State’s Attorney’s office, however, has been fighting that effort. The office has declined to comment on the case, but assistant state’s attorney Celeste Stack argued in court on Monday that gangs are behind the Guevara misconduct claims and have pressured their members to make allegations against the detective.
In 2009, Guevara’s attorney made a similar charge, telling the Chicago Tribune that the allegations against his client were a gang conspiracy. “We strongly believe there is an orchestrated effort by gang members that witnesses were told to recant,” the attorney said. Guevara and his attorney have declined repeated requests for comment from BuzzFeed News, and Guevara asserted his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination 159 times in written responses to questions in the Almodovar case.
Before a packed courtroom, Cook County Judge James B. Linn delayed ruling on the question of a new trial, agreeing to wait for Stack to file a motion on the question. She told the court she had been too busy with other assignments to complete her brief.
This is not the first time the State’s Attorney’s Office has made such an offer to imprisoned men who claim they were framed by Guevara.
In 2002, after a court granted a new trial to brothers Juan and Henry Johnson, convicted in a 1988 murder, prosecutors offered the brother’s the same deal: Plead guilty and walk free in exchange for the 11 years they’d already served. Henry accepted the offer; Juan did not. Instead, witnesses in his case testified that Guevara showed them pictures of the Johnson brothers and told them to select the them as the killers in a line-up. Johnson was found not guilty at retrial and in 2009, a federal jury granted him $21 million because of Guevara’s alleged misconduct in the case. The award was later reduced to $16 million.
A few years ago, prosecutors also offered to allow Armando Serrano to walk free in exchange for a guilty plea. He, too, rejected the offer. Last June an appeals court wrote that there were “profoundly alarming acts of misconduct” in his 1993 murder case, on which Guevara was the lead detective. Serrano received his certificate of innocence in November after 23 years in prison.
Serrano showed up at the courthouse Monday to support Almodovar, as did four other exonerees in Guevara cases — Angel Rodriguez, Jose Montanez, Jacques Rivera and Juan Johnson. Serrano said he needed no time in rejecting the prosecution’s offer when he was in prison.
“No matter how bad I wanted to be home, I couldn’t take the deal,” he said. “There’s no justice. All those years I spent behind bars would have been lost. They would have won.”
Almodovar’s aunts, Mary, Gladys and Iris, who have spent the last two decades on a crusade to free him, said they were stunned by the offer but endorsed their nephew’s decision to reject it.
“No. No. No. No way,” said his aunt Gladys.