Nearly 20 years ago, Roberto Almodovar was sentenced to life in prison for a gang-related double murder in Humboldt Park.
Now 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.
We recently learned Almodovar’s case is among a “handful” that the City of Chicago, at the urging of ex-U.S. Attorney Scott Lassar, turned over to the Cook County state’s attorney’s office for a fresh look. The review could shed light on whether Almodovar was wrongly convicted, and whether Guevara indeed did frame him.
The Emanuel administration asked Lassar to investigate Guevara after two murder convictions were vacated in part because of Guevara’s alleged misconduct as a detective. He is facing frame-up allegations in a number of other cases.
It couldn’t be determined why Lassar flagged Almodovar’s conviction, though a 2013 Illinois Appellate Court opinion called evidence in the case “tenuous” and directly questioned Guevara’s investigative methods.
Attorneys for Almodovar and his co-defendant, William Negron, claim Guevara railroaded their clients and are asking Cook County Judge James Linn to grant them new trials. The state’s attorney’s office, meanwhile, has defended Guevara and the Almodovar and Negron convictions in front of Linn, even as the agency pledges to objectively review the cases Lassar highlighted.
Almodovar’s attorney Jennifer Bonjean says that’s a clear conflict of interest.
“It’s like defending and prosecuting a case at the same time,” she says.
Bonjean has filed a motion with Cook County Circuit Judge Paul Biebel Jr., the Criminal Court’s presiding judge, asking him to help address this conflict-of-interest concern by appointing a 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 a “handful” merit further review, a spokeswoman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel previously confirmed. The findings were recently turned over to the state’s attorney’s office. Read related article>
The city and state’s attorney’s office 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 was now being re-investigated.
Lassar, however, didn’t ask prosecutors to review co-defendant Negron’s case, attorney Russell Ainsworth says.
“There’s no legitimate reason to question the conviction of Almodovar but not Negron,” says Ainsworth, of the Chicago law firm Loevy & Loevy, who is representing Negron (and which, in the interest of full disclosure, employs an attorney that serves as the Better Government Association’s outside general counsel.) “Both were convicted on the same set of facts that were concocted by Guevara.”
An Emanuel spokeswoman declined to comment. Lassar didn’t return messages.
“We have no comment on the specific cases as our review continues,” says Sally Daly, spokeswoman for State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.
Chicago’s municipal government has already paid nearly $20 million to investigate, defend and settle misconduct allegations against Guevara, who retired from the police department in 2005 and until recently worked security for the Chicago Park District.
He has been accused of concealing evidence, beating people, and coercing testimony from suspects and witnesses and more. In court depositions, he’s refused to answer questions, citing his constitutional right against self-incrimination.
Guevara couldn’t be reached for comment.
Almodovar, who turns 40 on April 27, has spent half his life in prison, convicted of killing two people and wounding another in a drive-by shooting in the early hours of Sept. 1, 1994. He and Negron never confessed. No weapon was recovered and there’s no physical evidence linking them to the shootings. Almodovar even had an alibi: His girlfriend and family members have 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 eyewitnesses who identified Almodovar as the shooter and Negron as the driver of a blue Oldsmobile that stopped in front of a Humboldt Park home and opened fire. Prosecutors said the motive was gang-related. (Almodovar admitted being in a gang at one time but said he wasn’t a gang member at the time of the shooting, records show.)
Guevara has claimed he singled out Almodovar and Negron based on eyewitness identifications. But court testimony “has cast doubt upon Detective Guevara’s method of obtaining those identifications,” the appellate court opinion says, noting that Guevara may have improperly steered witnesses toward suspects.
Witness statements obtained by Guevara also differed from witness statement 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 says.
One of the two eyewitnesses has said that Guevara showed him pictures of Almodovar and Negron and allegedly said, “these were the guys.” The witness then picked out Almodovar and Negron in a lineup, only to sign an affidavit six months later that said he erred.
The witness testified against Almodovar and Negron in court anyway, and said he signed the affidavit under pressure from a gang leader.
The witness now says he isn’t certain that Almodovar and Negron are responsible.
“I don’t know if they were innocent,” he said at a more recent court hearing. “I don’t know if they were not. All I know is that I didn’t see what I said I saw.”
Roberto Almodovar and William Negron images courtesy of Illinois Department of Corrections.
Reyanldo Guevara image courtesy of Chicago Sun-Times.