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Lawsuit alleges police, prosecutors fabricated evidence in murder case

Rosendo Hernandez holds a sign of Chicago police detective Reynaldo Guevara outside of the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago on July 20, 2016. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

A federal lawsuit alleged Monday that two former Cook County prosecutors — one of whom is now a judge — conspired with controversial former Chicago police Detective Reynaldo Guevara and others to fabricate evidence that led to a false conviction.

The lawsuit comes just days after a Cook County judge threw out a separate double murder conviction tied to Guevara, resulting in the release of one of the men after more than two decades in prison.

In filing Monday’s lawsuit, attorney Jennifer Bonjean said she is seeking $60 million in damages for her client, Armando Serrano, who was released last summer after more than two decades in prison when prosecutors dropped charges.

The lawsuit alleges that Guevara, his colleagues and then-Assistant State’s Attorneys Matthew Coghlan and John Dillon worked together to pressure a key witness into pinning the 1993 murder on Serrano.

Serrano and co-defendant Jose Montanez were convicted on the testimony of Francisco Vicente, a heroin addict facing four felony charges who allegedly told Guevara that the two men had confessed to fatally shooting Rodrigo Vargas in his van as he left his Humboldt Park apartment for work.

In 2004, after a series of interviews with students from the Medill Innocence Project, Vicente recanted his testimony, saying Guevara had fed him the story.

Serrano spent 23 years behind bars before his conviction was thrown out, and in November he was granted a certificate of innocence.

Coghlan, who is now a Cook County judge in the criminal division, could not be reached for comment Monday on the allegations in the lawsuit. A spokesman for Chief Judge Timothy Evans’ office noted that judges are prohibited from commenting publicly about pending court proceedings.

Dillon, now a lawyer in private practice, declined to comment.

A spokesman for the city’s Law Department could not be reached for comment, while a spokeswoman for the state’s attorney’s office declined to comment.

Prosecutors ordinarily are immune from civil liability after wrongful convictions, but Bonjean argued that Coghlan and Dillon were "intimately involved" in developing Vicente as a witness before Serrano was even arrested. As a result, she maintained that immunity does not apply — a legal argument that likely must be hashed out in the litigation.

Guevara has come under fire over allegations he bullied witnesses and framed innocent people in dozens of cases. In 2009, Juan Johnson won a $21 million verdict in his wrongful conviction lawsuit against Guevara, who Johnson alleged framed him for a 1989 murder.

On Friday, a Cook County judge threw out charges against Roberto Almodovar and William Negron, who were convicted in 1995 of a double homicide on the strength of witness testimony obtained in part by Guevara. Almodovar was freed Friday, but Negron remained imprisoned on a separate murder conviction.

Guevara has repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when questioned about the accusations against him.

Serrano and Montanez were released from prison last July after prosecutors dropped murder charges against them. The announcement by prosecutors came after a harshly worded appeals court ruling in June found that "profoundly alarming acts of misconduct" had led to their convictions for the 1993 murder.

At the time of their release, Kimberly Foxx, who had already beaten incumbent State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez for the Democratic nomination but still faced a Republican in the November election, had said she would review cases involving Guevara after taking office. But her office has declined to confirm that in recent days, saying only that the office’s Conviction Integrity Unit reviews all cases brought before it.

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