Happy exoneration anniversary Rodell Sanders! Rodell was exonerated in Illinois in 2014 with help from the Exoneration Project.
Happy exoneration anniversary Rodell Sanders! Rodell was exonerated in Illinois in 2014 with help from the Exoneration Project.
Last week, prosecutors dropped charges against two men who have spent the past 23 years wrongfully incarcerated. Jose Montanez and Armando Serrano were convicted in 1993 for the murder of Rodrigo Vargas and were sentenced to 55 years in prison. Their convictions were based largely on the testimony of a star witness and the work of a Chicago police officer whose investigative methods have since come under fire.
That witness was Francisco Vicente, a heroin addict who was facing several felony charges at the time of Vargas’ murder. Vicente claimed that Montanez and Serrano had confessed to the killing, which he told Detective Reynaldo Guevara, the officer who has received a number of misconduct allegations over the last several years. Vicente later recanted his testimony to students at the Medill Innocence Project, stating that he lied in order to receive a lighter sentence. He also told them that Guevara bribed and coerced him to falsely testify with cash, cigarettes, threats, intimidation, and physical abuse.
A number of cases involving Guevara, who retired in 2005, have been reviewed by Cook County State Attorney Anita Alvarez’s office after several allegations were made claiming that the detective framed or beat suspects. In addition to Montanez and Serrano’s cases, two other murder convictions that were linked to Guevara have been overturned. According to a report released last year, reviewing, litigating, and settling misconduct cases involving the detective has cost Chicago more than $20 million.
A state appellate court approved the Cook County State Attorney’s office’s request to have the convictions overturned, ruling that misconduct during the investigation and prosecution resulted in Montanez and Serrano’s convictions. The move by the prosecutor’s office came as a surprise because Alvarez rejected former federal prosecutor Scott Lassar’s recommendation last year that she reopen six cases investigated by Guevara, including Montanez and Serrano’s.
An attorney with the Exoneration Project, which represented the two recent exonerees, commended Alvarez for her actions but lamented that many innocent people that Guevara helped imprison still remain behind bars and vowed that they would not rest until all of them are freed.
The National Registry of Exonerations brought exciting news to members of the wrongful conviction community at the beginning of February when they released their annual exoneration report for 2015. Last year set a record for the highest number of exonerations in a single year—149. That number has been steadily increasing each year since the first DNA exoneration in 1989.
While one would assume that the report’s findings are nothing but positive, that is not necessarily the case for those still hoping to prove their innocence and have their convictions overturned. Despite prosecutors being more open to claims of innocence and some district attorney’s offices even establishing Conviction Integrity Units, cases rarely gain as much popularity as that of Serial podcast’s Adnan Sayed or Netflix’s Making a Murder’s Steven Avery. This means that most defendants hoping to bring public attention to their cases in order to have them reconsidered are essentially invisible. Therefore, because of the growing frequency of exonerations, it has become much more difficult for inmates to get their claims of innocence heard and their cases retried.
That increasing difficulty, however, has not deterred everyone. Some inmates and their supporters have come up with innovative ways to bring public attention to certain cases, including those of Matt Sopron, Jamie Snow, and John Horton.
Sopron was convicted for the 1995 murders of two 13-year-old girls, Helena Martin and Carrie Hovel. Gang members were thought to have accidentally shot the eighth graders, who were sitting in the back of a van, while targeting members of a rival gang. Prosecutors alleged that Sopron was the gang’s leader and ordered the shooting.
Sopron filed several appeals in both state and federal court, claiming that a number of witnesses had lied in court and since recanted because Chicago police and prosecutors had pressured them to testify against him. Sopron’s appeals were rejected by the Illinois Appellate Court, however, which stated that the witnesses’ recantations were not credible.
In an attempt to bring attention to his case, Sopron came up with the idea of erecting a sign on the Stevenson Expressway. His cousin, Lou Plucinski, built the 40-by-30 foot sign at his scrap metal recycling yard on the north side of the expressway. The smaller wooden sign, which reads “Free Matt Sopron,” sticks out amongst the larger commercial billboards. Plucinski, with whom Sopron was close friends with when he was younger, believes in his cousin’s innocence and feels that the best way to help Sopron is by drawing attention to his case. He hopes that people will see the sign and those who may be able to help will reach out.
Allan Ackerman, Sopron’s defense attorney who has represented him since 1998, agrees with Plucinski. He argued that the sign does make a difference because it gives the public a visual approach to the epidemic of broken criminal justice systems across the country.
The expressway sign is not the only creative idea Sopron and his supporters have come up with in regards to publicizing his case. Almost four years ago, the state attorney’s office’s Conviction Integrity Unit notified Ackerman that it was reviewing Sopron’s case. Prosecutors have since failed to release an update on the status of that review, so Sopron’s family also attempted to bring public attention to the case. They established the website www.freemattsopron.com and also created a petition online asking for an update on the State Attorney’s office’s review of the case. That petition has over 2,000 signatures.
Sopron’s mother, Patricia, continues her fight for her son’s freedom in the hopes that prosecutors or the courts will hear the efforts to have his case revisited. She stated that the website’s visits have increased, and that the petition was forwarded to the state attorney’s office. State Attorney Anita Alvarez was defeated in the Democratic primary last week, so Patricia hopes that the next state attorney will have a fresh perspective when viewing Sopron’s case.
Jamie Snow is another example of an inmate who claims he is innocent of the 1991 murder and armed robbery of a gas station attendant for which he was convicted. Supporters have tried drawing attention to Snow’s attempts to get DNA testing to help prove his innocence by passing out wristbands that say “Free Jamie Snow.”
Like Ackerman, Snow’s lawyer also thinks that the efforts to garner public attention to his case will have a positive effect. Tara Thompson at the Exoneration Project thinks that it is important for her client’s supporters to know that their efforts to make sure Snow’s case is not forgotten are helpful.
Also like Sopron, the “Free Jamie Snow” wristbands are not the only unique efforts created to bring attention to Snow’s case. His daughter sent a note in a bottle to the Chicago Tribune, which she called her own version of a message in a bottle. Snow supporters have also gathered every year for the past five years in a park to write and address postcards to reporters, in addition to rallying in front of the McLean County Courthouse.
A motion seeking DNA testing for several pieces of evidence at the McLean court and a federal court appeal of Snow’s conviction have kept his case active. Tammy Alexander, a Snow supporter and project manager at a university in Tennessee, stated that she and fellow supporters want the general public to know that although they would pay for it, the prosecutor is opposing the DNA testing.
Alexander began searching for evidence and coordinating public efforts seven years ago when she corresponded with Snow after reading about his case online. She expressed her frustration with what seems to have become a competition for exoneration. While Alexander and other supporters are happy for those who have recently been exonerated, they had hoped that their publicity of Snow’s case would have encouraged someone with information to come forward. This leaves them wondering why Snow, who continues to serve a life sentence at the maximum security Stateville Correctional Center, has not also been exonerated.
John Horton is yet another example of an inmate with creative supporters. He was convicted in 1995 for the 1993 murder and robbery at a McDonald’s in Rockford, despite the fact that his cousin, who is in prison for another murder, has repeatedly claimed that he committed the crime alone.
Horton’s supporters use social media to bring public attention to his attempts to have his conviction overturned. One of those supporters includes Melissa Markise, who initially got involved with Horton’s case by accident. After learning about his case, she felt troubled and gradually got more involved in it. Markise also got more involved with Horton, as she is now his fiancée. She made a website for him and files posts on social media. While Horton’s claims of innocence have not been fruitful thus far, Markise hopes that they will one day bring results in court.
Happy exoneration anniversary Eric Caine!
Eric was exonerated in Illinois in 2011 with help from the Exoneration Project.
The Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago has agreed to represent Curtis Lovelace, a former Illinois assistant state’s attorney, in his second trial. Lovelace was accused of murdering his wife, Cory Lovelace, on Valentine’s Day in 2006 by suffocating her with a pillow and was charged with first-degree murder. His first trial lasted for two weeks and the 12 jury members deliberated for 16 hours over the course of two days. That trial ended on February 5 with a hung jury split exactly down the middle, and a mistrial was declared. The retrial is set to begin on May 31.
Lovelace is an unusual client for the project, which has already helped exonerate 14 innocent people. Most innocence organizations, including the Exoneration Project, take on clients who have already been convicted of crimes. Leading the case will be the project’s founder, Jon Loevy, and its director, Tara Thompson. They have yet to formally identify themselves as Lovelace’s counsel, however. James Elmore and Jeff Page, his lawyers in the first trial, have also not yet formally withdrawn themselves as his counsel, but they have already declared that they will not represent him in the second trial.
Bill Clutter, leader of Investigating Innocence, another Illinois-based innocence organization, started a fundraising effort for Lovelace. Clutter hopes to raise $15,000 to be used for any trial-related expenses. The effort, which has already raised more than $5,000, offers a couple incentives. People who donate at least $50 will receive a “Free Curtis Lovelace” shirt; those who donate $1,000 will receive one of three signed copies of Presumed Innocent, written by best-selling crime author Scott Turow. Lovelace, who read the book when he was younger, said it helped inspire him to attend law school.
Lovelace has been held at the Hancock County Jail on $5 million bond since August 27, 2014 when a grand jury handed down an indictment for the first-degree murder charge. Clutter hopes that a bond reduction will be considered, and if it is granted, he believes Lovelace’s supporters will be able to help raise the money for the bond.
Several exonerees celebrate their exoneration anniversaries today.
Lesly Jean was exonerated in North Carolina in 2001.
Donte Booker was exonerated in Ohio in 2005.
Jarrett Adams was exonerated in Wisconsin in 2007 with help from the Wisconsin Innocence Project.
Tyrone Hood was exonerated in Illinois last year with help from the Exoneration Project.
Happy exoneration anniversary Lesly, Donte, Jarrett, and Tyrone!
Over the weekend, we celebrated a bunch of exoneration anniversaries.
Cecilia Guevara and Victoria Gauthier celebrated their exoneration anniversaries on the 15th. Both women were exonerated in Texas last year. Happy belated exoneration anniversary, Cecilia and Victoria!
Several exonerees celebrated their exoneration anniversaries on the 17th.
Vincent Thames, Terrill Swift, Harold Richardson, and Michael Saunders, who were all convicted for the same crime, were exonerated in Illinois in 2012. Vincent was represented by the Valorem Law Group, Terrill was represented by the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, Harold was represented by the Exoneration Project of the University of Chicago Law School, and Michael was represented by the Innocence Project.
Happy belated exoneration anniversary, gentlemen!
Charles Wilhite was also exonerated on the 17th in Massachusetts in 2013. Happy belated exoneration anniversary, Charles!
George Allen, Jr. was exonerated in Missouri on January 18, 2013 with help from the Innocence Project. Happy belated exoneration anniversary, George!
Travis Hayes was exonerated in Louisiana on January 19, 2007 with help from the Innocence Project – New Orleans. Happy exoneration anniversary, Travis!
exoneration,Innocence Project of Florida, Cecilia Guevara, Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, Charles Wilhite, Exoneration Project, George Allen, Harold Richardson, innocence project, Innocence Project New Orleans, Jr., Michael Saunders, Terrill Swift, Travis Hayes, Victoria Gauthier, Vincent Thames
Happy 1 year exoneration anniversary, David Bates and Johnnie Savory! Johnnie was pardoned by Governor Quinn with help from the Center on Wrongful Convictions.
David was exonerated in Illinois after being pardoned by Governor Pat Quinn with the help of the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago.
Great work by our colleagues in Chicago.