Cook County judge facing retention denies framing suspects for 1993 murder

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A version of this article appears in the Wednesday print edition of the Chicago Sun-Times.

As he faces a November retention vote, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Matthew Coghlan has denied in a court filing that he helped frame two innocent suspects for murder 25 years ago.

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Cook County Circuit Court Judge Matthew Coghlan

Armando Serrano and Jose Montanez contend in pending federal lawsuits that Coghlan, as an assistant state’s attorney, and a second prosecutor took part in a June 2, 1993 meeting at which, a robbery suspect has said, disgraced former Chicago police detective Reynaldo Guevara and his partner encouraged the suspect to falsely implicate Serrano and Montanez in a 1993 murder.

The two former state’s attorneys, Coghlan and John Dillon, both have denied in their answers to the lawsuit that they met that day with the robbery suspect, Francisco Vicente.

Coghlan states in his answer that Chicago police detective Ernest Halvorsen, Guevara’s partner, met with Vicente that day, but Coghlan “was unaware of Vicente or that Vicente made any statements regarding the Vargas murder until after a grand jury had already indicted Serrano” for the murder of Rodrigo Vargas. Serrano was indicted on July 26 that year.

In his separate answer, Dillon admits that Vicente was brought that day to the State’s Attorney’s office, but denies that he himself “was present for, or participated in any meeting(s) with, Vicente, Coghlan, Detective Guevara or Detective Halvorsen on June 2, 1993.”

A review of records reveals evidence that despite those denials, Vicente saw both Dillon and Coghlan on June 2, 1993. That was the same day, police reports show, that Vicente first implicated Serrano, Montanez, and another man, Jorge Pacheco, in the murder of Rodrigo Vargas. But the public record falls short of establishing that Coghlan and Dillon were present as Guevara fed Vicente a fabricated story implicating Serrano, Montanez and Pacheco, as Vicente has said.

Coghlan, through a spokesperson for the committee working to retain the judges, said he could not comment on pending litigation, and his attorney did not return phone calls. Dillon’s attorney did not respond to phone messages.

The lawsuits by Serrano and Montanez are cited, among other issues, by a group of progressive organizations who are organizing a campaign against Coghlan’s retention.

An informant surfaces in jail

Vargas’s February 1993 murder went unsolved for four months after his body was discovered, shot to death, in his van.

On May 14, 1993, Vicente was arrested and charged in connection with four separate robberies, three of them armed, that, according to court papers, he committed to fuel his heroin addiction.

Guevara and Halvorsen soon secured a statement from Vicente that, while in custody, he had heard a man named Roberto Bouto confess to murdering a man named Salvador Ruvalcaba. Vicente testified before a grand jury in May 1993, and Bouto was indicted.

A few weeks later, Vicente notified the detectives that Bouto’s lawyer had visited him in jail and tried to win his help on Bouto’s behalf, providing him money and promises of more favors, according to a report by Halvorsen and Guevara. The report states that the detectives arranged to have Vicente transported to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Gang Prosecution Unit, where he was “interviewed at that time by Det E. Halvorsen and A.S.A. John Dillon.”

Guevara and Halvorsen prepared a police report that same day stating that a “circumstantial witness who for his own safety must remain anonymous at this time” had implicated Serrano, Pacheco, and Montanez in the murder of Vargas. A few weeks later, a handwritten statement prepared by the witness with Halvorsen and a prosecutor revealed that the “circumstantial witness” was Vicente.

Dillon prosecuted Bouto, and Coghlan prosecuted the three suspects in the Vargas murder.

As Vicente was on the witness stand in the October 1994 trial of Serrano, Montanez, and Pacheco, Coghlan asked him about why he was in the State’s Attorney’s office on June 2, 1993 the day he first implicated the three defendants.

Q: Were you in the State’s Attorney’s office on that day?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: Why?
A: I was talking to a State’s Attorney.
Q: Which State’s Attorney?
A: I was talking to you.
Q: Was that on this case or another case?
A: No, first I was talking to—first I started talking to John Dillon about the Robert Bouto case.
Q: On June 2nd were you up there talking to John Dillon, is that correct?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: On June 2nd, did you tell the detectives regarding your conversation with the defendant?
A: Yes, sir.

Serrano and Montanez were convicted after a bench trial before Judge Michael Bolan and were sentenced in March 1995 to 55 years in prison. Pacheco was acquitted by the same judge.

Vicente recants

Ten years later, in 2003, Vicente told students from the Medill Justice Project at Northwestern University that Coghlan and Dillon were “sitting there listening” as Guevara fed Vicente a false story to tell. He said Coghlan and Dillon wrote down his statement while Guevara and Halvorsen coached him on what to say.

In 2013, as reports of Guevara’s misconduct piled up, the city hired a team from the law firm Sidley Austin headed by former U.S. attorney Scott Lassar to conduct a review of convictions tied to Guevara.

The interview notes from Sidley’s lawyers show former Assistant State’s Attorney Celeste Stack told the lawyers that Coghlan, Dillon, and Halvorsen were present when Vicente first reported knowledge of the Vargas murder. Stack, who represented the state in opposing the petition by Serrano and Montanez in 2010 for a new trial, declined to comment.

The Sidley report concluded that Vicente’s testimony against Serrano and Montanez was likely fabricated. In 2016, the Illinois Appellate Court ordered a hearing on the evidence that Guevara and Halvorsen had developed a wrongful conviction of Serrano and Montanez. The appellate panel referred to the accusations as “alarming acts of misconduct …which warrant closer scrutiny by appropriate authorities.”

That hearing never took place. Instead, then-State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez announced in July 2016 that after a “very thorough review of the case,” her office had elected to drop charges in the interest of justice. Serrano and Montanez were released after 23 years in prison.