A spokesman for Chicago’s police union say they are delighted with a motion filed Aug. 9 in federal court that asks for the dismissal of a civil action against the city of Chicago for wrongful convictions in a 25-year-old murder case.
FOP spokesman Martin Preib told Chicago City Wire that the motion was especially welcome in light of a history of the city backing down and settling civil actions in a series of questionable wrongful conviction cases.
“We are encouraged by the recent actions of the city attorneys in this case and others to confront the legitimacy of the tactics employed by these once convicted offenders and their supporters, particularly their attempts to hold the media accountable as well,” Preib said.
Martin Preib, Chicago FOP
In the motion, attorneys for the city and now retired detective Ernest Halvorsen and unit supervisor Edward Mingey, also retired, cited the destruction of evidence critical to the civil case Armando Serrano filed in 2017 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois against the city, Halvorsen and Mingey. Retired detective Reynaldo Guevara, and two others, were also named as defendants in the civil case but were not represented in this motion.
The missing evidence cited in the motion consists of videotapes, audio tapes and memoranda of key witnesses that was compiled in 2003 by Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism professor David Protess, his journalism students and their private investigator – the motion refers to them collectively as Medill. They began investigating the case on behalf of Serrano.
In 2004, Medill succeeded in “extracting” the recantation of the testimony of Francisco Vicente; it was his testimony that helped convict Serrano, Jose Montanez and another man of the 1993 murder of Rodrigo Vargas during a botched robbery. The motion said the discovery revealed that Vicente was threatened by the Imperial Gangsters, a street gang that included Serrano and Montanez among its members. In addition, Medill offered Vicente “other hidden incentives, including a prison transfer and a fortune (described by Plaintiff Montanez as ‘ching-ching’).” Based on the Vicente recantation, both Serrano and Montanez were released in 2016 having served 23 years of their 55-year sentences. Serrano was 44 at the time, Montanez was 49.
The lawyers for the defendants say they sought all evidence compiled by Medill, particularly regarding the reasons why not just Vicente recanted but why another man, Timothy Rankin, did as well. Rankin originally told police and a grand jury that Serrano, Montanez and a third had shot Vargas. But Rankin, the motion said, was likewise threatened by the Imperial Gangsters. He recanted his statements before trial, and fled to Puerto Rico, where he stayed at Montanez’s family residence, to evade being called as a trial witness.
But the evidence was gone.
“Defendants discovered that Plaintiff Serrano’s agents deliberately destroyed and/or intentionally lost inculpatory audiotapes, memos, and notes relating to key witness interviews, including Vicente, Rankins, Plaintiffs, Plaintiff Montanez’s father, Vicente’s cellmate, Vicente’s wife, and Michele Serrano (no relation to Plaintiff Serrano), who had provided Medill with a videotaped interview implicating her former boyfriend, Jorge Pacheco, and both Plaintiffs in the Vargas murder,” the motion states.
The evidence “contained critical substantive evidence on the core issues of who murdered Vargas…” the motion continued. “As a direct result of Plaintiff Serrano’s spoliation [intentionally hiding or destroying evidence], defendants have lost the ability to develop and present critical evidence, which has prevented Defendants from fully defending a case in which each Plaintiff seeks tens of millions of dollars in damages.”
The lawyers asked the court to dismiss the case, or bar the recantation of the witness testimony and Serrano’s contesting that he was at the scene of the murder. And it asked the court to bar the consideration of Serrano’s Certificate of Innocence that he was awarded in 2017 “since it was procured without the circuit court having an opportunity to examine a wealth of inculpatory and impeachment evidence.”