2016’s Final Wrongful Conviction Roundup

It’s time for this year’s final wrongful conviction round-up, our quarterly examination of some of the exonerations from around the country. As always, there are moving and important stories to tell. These stories continue to remind us of the human toll of our country’s out-of-control criminal system.

Jose Montaez and Armando Serrano: I am proud to kick off the wrongful conviction round-up with Loevy & Loevy partner Russell Ainsworth’s client, Jose Montanez. Mr. Montanez and his co-defendant, Armando Serrano, were framed and wrongfully convicted of armed robbery and murder for the 1993 shooting death of Rodrigo Vargas. There was no physical evidence or anything else tying them to the crime – only the incredible claim by a serial snitch named Francisco Vincente that the accused confessed the crime to Vincente after the fact. But Vincente “solved” this case, along with two other unrelated cold-case murders, in exchange for leniency on his own pending charges, by claiming the culprits all just happened to confess to him. Behind the scenes, the Chicago Police Department’s notoriously abusive Detective Reynaldo Guevara fed Vincente the facts and abused/threatened/bribed Vincente to falsely implicate the accused. After Montanez and Serrano’s successful appeal revived their post-conviction case, the prosecution acknowledged Detective Guevara’s sordid past and sought to vacate the convictions, drop charges, and support Certificates of Innocence for the men. On November 2, 2016, the state court issued Certificates of Innocence to both men, who each spent more than two decades in prison for crimes they did not commit.

Jose Montanez released from Danville Correctional Center after being wrongfully imprisoned for 23 years. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)


Lionel White: On December 14, 2016, a state court overturned Lionel White’s 2006 drug conviction. Mr. White had pled guilty to drug charges in order to avoid a mandatory life without parole sentence if he lost at trial. As is so often the case in our criminal justice system, the innocent feel compelled to plead guilty because the stakes are simply too high if they go to trial and lose. But even at his guilty plea hearing, Mr. White maintained his innocence and told the court he had been framed. Mr. White claimed that Chicago Police Sergeant Ronald Watts falsely targeted White in order to help out a rival drug dealer who was paying Watts protection money. It has since come to light that Sergeant Watts and his cohorts were running the drug business at a housing project, stealing drugs, shaking down drug dealers, and pinning cases on those who disrupted business. For years, Chicago Police Department Internal Affairs ignored allegations of police corruption against Sergeant Watts, like Mr. White’s, and Watts and his henchmen continued their misconduct until an FBI sting caught Watts stealing thousands of dollars from a drug dealer. Watts was sentenced to 22 months in prison for his corruption. Along with agreeing to Mr. White’s exoneration, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office has joined efforts for the appointment of an independent investigator who can help determine other wrongfully convicted victims of Watts’ corruption. Mr. White was represented by Josh Tepfer of The Exoneration Project.

The Multnomah County Oregon Five: In July, The New York Times Magazine, collaborating with the independent investigative journalists from ProPublica, published a study that found that the roadside drug test used by law enforcement departments around the country has an error rate of 20-30%. This unacceptably high error rate yields a lot of false convictions. Police officers arrest more than 1.2 million people a year on drug possession charges, and more than 90% of drug convictions come from the accused pleading guilty. As I said, innocent people often plead guilty because the system has made it too risky for most to go to trial. So, false positives on field tests cause many innocent people to plead guilty to drug crimes. In response to this study, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office’s Conviction Integrity Unit reviewed cases in which defendants pled guilty to drug possession when the offending roadside tests were in use. They discovered five cases—Steven Ash, Derek Luckovich, Marlin Hayes, Andre Mazur and Gary Vinsonhaler, Jr. — these defendants had all pled guilty despite the fact that subsequent reliable lab tests tested negative for the presence of any controlled substance. In October and November 2016, the District Attorney’s Office moved to vacate the five men’s convictions and dismiss the charges.

What do this quarter’s wrongful conviction cases all have in common? In an effort to end the year on a positive note, I have focused on cases where the prosecution eventually did the right thing. It took decades sometimes, but in each case the state took the initiative and came out on the side of justice. Take heart where you can. Happy New Year.


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