Why Prosecutors Fear Widow's Testimony in Wrongful Conviction Case

Wilda Vargas was widowed by a gunman's bullets in 1993. Her testimony helped convict two Humboldt Park men who have steadfastly professed their innocence. Now she wants to set the record straight by testifying at a court hearing that will determine whether the men win new trials. Why are Cook County prosecutors fighting hard to keep her off the stand?

Twenty years ago, Vargas thought she knew who murdered her husband, Rodrigo, as he was leaving for work. That's because a detective told her he'd solved the crime. Area 5 Det. Reynaldo Guevara persuaded the widow that Armando Serrano and Jose Montanez were the killers. He said he was sure, among other reasons, because an informant had come forward to report that the duo had confessed to him.

But Det. Guevara failed to tell Vargas that the so-called informant was actually a jailhouse snitch -- a stick-up man who got a sweet deal in exchange for testifying in her husband's case. The detective also failed to tell her that the snitch was a heroin addict whom Guevara had slapped around before ordering him to fabricate the confession. She would not learn about this evidence for 12 years. And, it would take even longer for her to discover that Guevara had lied to her about supposedly damning ballistics evidence in the case.

Meanwhile, Guevara convinced Vargas in 1993 that an incident the day before the murder was vitally important. While at a gas station, she saw her husband exchange words with several men who seemed to follow them after they headed home. Since her husband had paid for the gas with a roll of bills, the motive for the murder was robbery, Guevara told her. The men, he said, were Serrano and Montanez. At trial, the widow recounted the incident, and though she misidentified the defendants in court, she figured that justice had been done because the judge found them guilty.

Fast forward a decade. In 2004, the jailhouse snitch admitted to Northwestern University journalism students that he had lied on the stand, a recantation he has repeated to a succession of defense attorneys. Two years later, Vargas met with other journalism students and volunteered that she had nagging doubts about whether the gas station altercation had led to her husband's murder. It had been a minor dust-up, the men had not followed them all the way home and she had not gotten a good look at them, she acknowledged in an affidavit.

Last summer, while preparing for an innocence hearing based on the snitch's recantation -- and evidence that now-retired Det. Guevara hadinduced false statements in at least 40 other cases -- lawyers for Serrano and Montanez showed up at the widow's home. She welcomed them inside and, sitting around her dining room table, she repeated the concerns she had expressed to the students.

Although Vargas had remarried and moved on with her life, she remained deeply troubled by whether the right men had been convicted, she told Jennifer Bonjean, Serrano's pro bono lawyer. Vargas worried that the real killer might still be on the loose. "'I want to know the truth about who killed my husband and the father of my children,'" Bonjean quoted her as saying. Then the widow blurted out something she had not told the journalism students.

After the murder, she and Det. Guevara had driven around Humboldt Park looking for the car that she had seen at the gas station. Guevara suddenly stopped next to a tan Buick that he knew belonged to Jose Montanez, a local gang member, and pointed to a hole in its side. "'That's a bullet hole,'" he declared. "'Tests prove it matches the bullets used to kill your husband.'" Must be the car from the gas station incident, she figured, so the suspects had to be guilty. In that moment, Vargas became a witness for the prosecution.

When Bonjean explained that a bullet hole in a car can't be matched with ballistics from a crime scene, and that no such evidence had been introduced at the trial, Vargas' brown eyes widened and her jaw dropped. "'He lied to me!'" she said angrily. She promised to show up at the hearing and tell her story to Judge Maura Slattery Boyle, who will soon decide the fate of Montanez and Serrano.

On May 15, without being subpoenaed, Vargas drove from the western suburbs to the George N. Leighton Criminal Court Building on the city's Southwest Side and stood outside Judge Boyle's courtroom, expecting to testify -- this time, for the defense. She waited patiently, wondering what was happening. Hours passed.

Inside, Bonjean was imploring the judge to allow the widow to take the stand. But prosecutors vehemently objected, claiming that Vargas had nothing new to add. They also argued that her testimony would be improper because her affidavit was not part of the original innocence petition filed by previous lawyers.

Bonjean had repeatedly asked the court for permission to update the petition to include Vargas' revelations. But to no avail. The judge sided with the prosecutors, as she had throughout the hearing.

The widow was told to go home, filled with more doubt than ever about whether she and her children would ever learn the truth.

Family members of the prisoners wondered the same thing. They had waited for this hearing for nine years, ever since the snitch recanted; it seemed like the injustice had only been compounded. In court that morning, a veteran prosecutor had called their loved ones "mutts." Courtroom spectators gasped. Serrano's sister shouted, "That's flat-out racist." The prosecutor apologized on the spot, and State's Attorney Anita Alvarez's spokesperson later characterized the comment as "unfortunate and inappropriate" to Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn.

But shutting out the widow of a murder victim is not just a slip of the tongue. It reflects a conscious effort by prosecutors, who claim they are advocates for crime victims' families, to thwart their testimony when it proves inconvenient. It reflects a culture that is more concerned with maintaining a conviction than finding the truth.

The hearing is scheduled to resume on June 17, when Det. Guevara and the snitch have been subpoenaed to testify. The families of the prisoners and the murder victim are united in demanding justice. Will prosecutors continue to stand in the way?