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$21 Million Jury Award for Illinois Wrongful Conviction

by David M. Reutter

In June 2009, an Illinois federal jury awarded $21 million to a former prisoner who served 11-1/2 years for a murder he didn’t commit. The basis of the claim was that Chicago police detective Reynaldo Guevara, a gang crimes specialist, had framed Juan Johnson for a 1989 homicide.

The September 9, 1989 murder occurred outside a Chicago nightclub after a fight between rival gangs spilled from in-side the club to the streets. The melee included several brawls with over 100 people involved or spectating. Witnesses testified that the victim, Ricardo Fernandez, was so bloody and disfigured after being beaten that they couldn’t recognize him.

The next day Guevara arrested Juan Johnson, a member of the Spanish Cobras gang, and placed him in a line-up. Several other gang members identified him as the killer. Johnson was convicted and sentenced to 30 years for murdering Fernandez; however, a successful post-conviction petition resulted in a new trial.

At the re-trial, it was revealed that Guevara “had a reputation for hooking people up” with crimes they did not commit. That reputation led gang members Salvador Ortiz and Samuel Perez to follow Guevara’s instruction to identify Johnson as the person who beat Fernandez to death with a board.

The board used in the murder was identified by another gang member, Juan Michael. Following the first trial, the board was tested; it did not reveal any trace of blood or hair. It was also learned that at least 12 Police Department of Professional Standards complaints had been filed against Guevara, resulting in several suspensions. There were repeated specific complaints in other cases that Guevara had fabricated identifications and concealed tainted identification procedures.

After a jury acquitted Johnson at his second trial in 2004, he filed suit in U.S. District Court. On June 19, 2009, a federal jury ruled in Johnson’s favor on his claims of due process violations, malicious prosecution and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and awarded him $21 million. He was represented by Chicago attorneys Thomas C. Gardiner, Amanda C. Antholt and Daniel J. Stohr, and the law firm of Loevy & Loevy.

“The evidence is there that [Guevara] framed me,” Johnson said. “It’s time the city starts taking responsibility for its actions.” Apparently that isn’t going to happen, though, as the defendants, including the City of Chicago, have since appealed the case to the Seventh Circuit. See: Johnson v. Guevara, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 1:05-cv-01042.

Interestingly, Johnson was arrested in a federal drug investigation in October 2008 and charged with crack cocaine-related offenses. At the time he had been working as a volunteer for CeaseFire, a non-profit agency, as a “violence inter-rupter” to defuse gang disputes. As part of an agreement with the Attorney General’s office, he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and federal prosecutors agreed to delay the criminal case until after Johnson’s civil suit went to trial.

Johnson’s attorneys filed a motion stating he had “no intention of playing games with this Court. To the contrary, he is putting his cards on the table about his intention, which is to avoid having any conviction for the present charges for the purpose of the upcoming civil trial.” The district court rescheduled the trial date on the drug charges and Johnson pleaded guilty in August 2009, after the verdict in his civil case. He has not yet been sentenced. See: United States v. Johnson, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 1:08-cr-00828-1.

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Related legal case

Johnson v. Guevara

Please see the brief bank for documents related to this case.