Attorneys: Cook County judge’s corruption polluted his handling of murder case

In 1977, a judge convicted an 18-year old of murder and sentenced him to 200-to-600 years in prison. Forty years later, the prisoners' attorneys contend the trial and sentencing were an improper effort by a corrupt judge to dilute public criticism.

Chicago Sun-Times; Illinois Department of Corrections

Left: a mugshot of Ronnie Carrasquillo showing his face swollen after being beaten by the police, which ran in the Oct. 12, 1976 issue of the Chicago Sun-Times. Right: an undated photo of Carrasquillo in prison.

Attorneys for a man convicted of the 1976 murder of a Chicago police officer asked a Cook County judge Wednesday to overturn the verdict or sentence, contending the trial judge treated their client unfairly to deflect criticism of his own corruption.

The argument came on behalf of Ronnie Carrasquillo in a courtroom at the George Leighton Criminal Courthouse that was attended by dozens of his family members and supporters. Carrasquillo, then 18, was convicted of first-degree murder and given a 200-to-600 year sentence by former Cook County Judge Frank Wilson, who was under intense public criticism for having acquitted a mob hitman in a nonjury trial months earlier.

“This was a sentence to appease his critics, to show the world he was a tough judge,” Carrasquillo’s attorney Michael Deutsch told Associate Judge Alfredo Maldonado of Wilson’s harsh sentence. Then a member of the Imperial Gangsters street gang, Carrasquillo fired toward a crowd that was gathered at an intersection on Chicago’s Northwest Side.

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Carrasquillo maintained he was trying to break up a fight with a rival gang, and that he did not intend to shoot off-duty police officer Terrence Loftus, who had stopped in the intersection during the fight.

The Cook County State’s Attorney’s office has fiercely opposed Carrasquillo’s petition. Assistant State’s Attorney Carol Rogala argued Wednesday that Wilson’s corruption in the mob case does not prove bias in Carrasquillo’s trial, which was held more than six months later.

Carrasquillo’s trial took place after Judge Wilson acquitted mob hitman Harry Aleman during a nonjury trial. Years later, Wilson committed suicide after the FBI confronted him with evidence that he had taken a $10,000 bribe to acquit the hitman.

More than a decade before the bribery allegations came to light, Carrasquillo agreed to a bench trial before Wilson at the advice of his attorney.

“We’re speculating about what was going on in Judge Wilson’s mind in December 1977” during Carrasquillo’s trial, Rogala told the judge, adding the sentence was consistent with another case Wilson presided over — the murder of a postal worker.

Carrasquillo’s case was highlighted in a recent Injustice Watch study of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, which covered the often arbitrary way the board considers the release of a handful of aging inmates, including Carrasquillo, who were sentenced before the state legislature amended the law in 1978 to require determinate sentences.

Finding no hope of release on parole in the past few decades, Carrasquillo, now 59, has petitioned the court to give him a new trial or new sentence. The argument Wednesday followed earlier hearings at which Deutsch and attorney Shubra Ohri called witnesses to testify about the intense public backlash Wilson faced directly after the acquittal and the potential bias it created for Wilson’s future cases.

Deutsch noted Carrasquillo’s age during the crime and lack of criminal history, factors often raised to argue for a more lenient sentence.

Deutsch and Rogala sparred over whether ballistic evidence in the case proved prosecutors’ claims that Carrasquillo intended to shoot Loftus, or his own statement that he was merely firing above the crowd.

Maldonado is expected to make his decision on the case in late January.