Wrongful Conviction Hearing a Revelation

Besides the drama that unfolds within its majestic walls, a courtroom can illuminate the justice system -- sometimes by a revealing slip of the tongue.

That is what happened on Wednesday in room 307 of the George N. Leighton Criminal Court Building, where Cook County Judge Maura Slattery Boyle was presiding over a hearing that involved two Humboldt Park men who have professed their innocence for 20 years.

As I recently reported, Armando Serrano and Jose Montanez were convicted of a 1993 murder based primarily on the testimony of a jailhouse snitch who claimed the men confessed to him. The snitch has repudiated his testimony, as has the murder victim's widow, who at one point provided a possible motive for the slaying. Both insist that Det. Reynaldo Guevara pressured them into fabricating statements. Compelling evidence shows that the now-retired cop was responsible for similar practices in dozens of cases, many of which were brought to the attention of Judge Boyle prior to the hearing.

Boyle's courtroom was packed with spectators, the prisoners' families comprising the largest contingent. Serrano's and Montanez's parents and siblings joined fellow churchgoers and others. They hoped the judge would free their loved ones, who sat with their lawyers in the front of the courtroom, separated from the gallery by Plexiglas.

The hearing began ominously when the judge, visibly annoyed that no one rose when she took the bench, sternly warned the families: "This is not a visiting area [of a prison], it is a courtroom. There will be no waving, no communicating."

The revelation came minutes later, during Assistant State's Attorney Celeste Stack's opening statement. Reviewing the events leading up the crime, Stack referred to the defendants' purported run-in the previous day with Rodrigo and Wilda Vargas, the murder victim and his widow.

"The widow saw them," Stack said, pointing to Serrano and Montanez. "These mutts."

Mutts? Spectators gasped. "That's flat-out racist," shouted Maria Serrano, Armando's sister. Others voiced agreement, while the prisoners' mothers began weeping.

"Objection!" exclaimed Jennifer Bonjean, Serrano's pro bono lawyer. Stack apologized before the judge could rule, but the din in the courtroom continued.

"It was cruel," Maria Serrano told me later. "It's not enough they wrongfully take my brother away for 20 years. They want to slap us in the face by calling us trash."

While Judge Boyle did not sanction Stack for her epithet, a different standard apparently applied to Bonjean. The judge repeatedly threatened the defense lawyer with contempt and ordered sanctions (punishment to be determined later) for three incidents: folding her arms, muttering under her breath and replying to the judge's exasperated comment that she'd "had it" by saying, "Me, too."

Judge Boyle also denied the motion by Bonjean and Russell Ainsworth, Montanez's pro bono lawyer, to allow the widow to testify at the hearing -- after prosecutor Stack argued against it. The judge also ruled Stack's way in barring Serrano and Montanez from taking the stand to profess their innocence and answer prosecutors' questions. The rulings were made on procedural grounds.

Has Boyle's career as a lawyer for the City of Chicago and an assistant state's attorney influenced her view of cases like this one? How about her close relationship with the family of Richard M. Daley, the former state's attorney and mayor? It is hard to say since many fine judges have similar connections. It is also difficult to know what prompted the offensive comment by Stack, viewed widely as one of the most honorable prosecutors in the state's attorney's office.

But the bottom line is the same. At the Leighton building, prosecutors have home court advantage, and virtually anything they say, goes. It is remarkable that 78 prisoners from Cook County have been exonerated, though that number spans the last 24 years and more than half were DNA cases.

As for the "mutts" outburst, the fact that prosecutor Stack is well-regarded shows how ingrained comments like hers are to the culture of the state's attorney's office. Truth be told, worse slurs are common around the water cooler, reflecting a dehumanizing view of criminal defendants that comes from years of locking them up, one person of color at a time.

Back to the hearing. Two witnesses, including a former Chicago cop, testified that Det. Guevara coerced suspects and rigged line-ups. Another witness took the stand to say that the jailhouse snitch recruited by Guevara had admitted lying on the stand in implicating Serrano and Montanez. The snitch, dubbed "The Pope of Humboldt Park" because suspects routinely confessed their "sins" to him, has signed an affidavit recanting his trial testimony.

But the snitch failed to appear at the hearing and a warrant was issued for his arrest. He has vanished, according to the defense lawyers, likely because he fears recrimination by prosecutors if he contradicts his trial testimony. His concerns seem reasonable given that State's Attorney Anita Alvarez has charged at least one recanting witness with perjury.

At the end of court on Thursday, Judge Boyle continued the case until June 17, when the defense has subpoenaed Det. Guevara to testify. Guevara will likely plead the fifth on the advice of his attorney, James Sotos - once counsel to Comdr. Jon Burge, the infamous cop convicted of perjury for denying the widespread torture of suspects on the South Side.

The lawyers will be back for the next round, assuming Ms. Bonjean is not in custody for muttering. Of course, the families of the prisoners will return, as they have for every court appearance, praying that Judge Boyle will rule justly. But will journalists cover the proceedings, or will they be missing in action as they were for many years while the Burge torture scandal unfolded? Only Telemundo weighed in on last week's events.

And will reporters cover today's hearing in the case of Gabriel Solace, another alleged Guevara victim who contends he was beaten for 40 hours before he falsely confessed to murder?

Does anyone care -- or is this just about a bunch of mutts?