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Another wrongful conviction?

The Tribune reported Friday that the state supreme court ordered a new trial for Salvador Ortiz, noting that two witnesses who identified Ortiz in a 1992 murder later recanted.

The Center on Wrongful Convictions points out something the Tribune’s account missed: the witnesses actually recanted prior to the trial.

Judge Dennis Derbach ruled the recantations weren’t credible — and convicted Ortiz on the basis of the initial, recanted identifications, sentencing him to 47 years in prison.  No physical evidence connected Ortiz to the murder.  Derbach also denied two post-conviction petitions based on new affidavits from eyewitnesses who identified others as the killers.

When, on the second petition, the appeals court finally overturned Derbach, the state’s attorney challenged that ruling.  But the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the appeals court, ruling unanimously and citing “compelling evidence of actual innocence.”

There’s a bit of a backstory:  Community activists have long maintained that Ortiz was set up for the murder charge after he spoke out in another case.

In 1989 Ortiz was one of several witnesses who picked out Juan Johnson in a lineup.  Johnson was charged with murder – but before his 1991 trial, Ortiz went to his attorneys and said the identification had been coerced by Detective Reynaldo Guevara of the Area 5 gang crimes unit.

In Johnson’s 2004 retrial, Ortiz testified that Guevara had shown photos of Johnson as the individual who should be identified in the lineup. (As Newstips reported in June, CWC has uncovered several cases where Guevara showed photos to witnesses in order to influence their identifications.)  The suggestion carried an implied threat of retaliation, he said.

Johnson was acquitted.  In June a federal jury awarded him $21 million in compensatory damages, the largest such award in Chicago history.

It was after Ortiz first spoke out that detectives from the same Area 5 unit – which unfortunately is best known for spawning cocaine and gun dealer Joseph Miedzianowski and several other corrupt cops – arrested him and charged him with murder, based on witness accounts the supreme court has now found to be tainted.

Ortiz, who’s now 40, has spent 17 years in prison “for a murder that all known eyewitnesses say he did not commit,” says CWC.

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Category: criminal justice, police


One Response

  1. ruth pena says:

    Wow…. Thank you Curtis Black for outlining the gray areas. I’m really pleased with the article and I know May Molina (Salvador’s Mother who died in Police custody)is deeply grateful as well.

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