Reversing conviction, Ill. Appeals Court warns police deception violates trust

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An Illinois appellate court panel Tuesday unanimously overturned a murder conviction, ruling that the evidence “convincingly shows” the defendant was wrongly convicted based on a confession that was not voluntary and, even if it was, the evidence did not support a conviction.

The opinion stands as a harsh rebuke to the conviction of Jesus Sanchez for a 2013 shooting in Wheeling, noting that the confession Sanchez gave in police custody was not reliable and was contradicted by the physical evidence.

Strikingly, the court took issue with the practices of deception used routinely by detectives to obtain confessions. Sanchez’s case, the court wrote, “shows us how the use of deception in interrogations leads to false confessions. Deceptive practices contribute to an atmosphere in which whole communities act with hostility toward police.”

The opinion continues, “If police want the members of the community to treat them with respect and help them in their efforts to reduce crime, police should renounce the use of deceptive practices in law enforcement so that the members of the community learn that they can trust police officers to treat them honestly. The practice of deception in interrogations and other settings can destroy the trust needed as a foundation for the relationship between police officers and the members of the communities the police officers have a duty to serve and protect.”

The opinion overturns the conviction of Sanchez, then 18, in the killing of Rafael Orozco, in what police believed a gang retaliation.

There were holes in the case from the start, and the appellate opinion found fault both with the trial judge, Thomas Fecarotta Jr., and the prosecutor, Michael P. Gerber.

“The overwhelming implausibility of the prosecution’s account presents us with the question: why did a jury of 12 ostensibly reasonable persons sign a verdict convicting Sanchez of murder?” states the opinion of the three-judge panel, authored by Illinois Appellate Court Justice P. Scott Neville Jr. and joined by Appellate Justices Aurelia Pucinski and Mary Anne Mason.

“We find two factors that likely led to the verdict. First, confessions have exceptional persuasive force… Second… the prosecutor shifted the jurors’ focus from the evidence against Sanchez to the issues of whether defense counsel had grievously insulted police and whether jurors doubted the integrity of the officers.”

Injustice Watch wrote about the Sanchez case in January, noting the accusations of that the prosecutor, Gerber, had committed misconduct. Gerber is temporarily serving as a judge on the Circuit Court after a Supreme Court appointment in late 2016.

Gerber, who lost in the Republican primary last month in the 13th subcircuit, had been the longest-running assistant state’s attorney when he was appointed to a temporary position on the bench in 2016Injustice Watch wrote in January that Circuit Judge Joseph Claps last year overturned the murder and arson conviction of Arthur Brown, whom Claps found had been wrongly convicted based on false statements that Gerber made to the jury.

Injustice Watch then wrote about Sanchez’s case and his lawyers’ contention on appeal that he had been wrongly convicted.

Orozco, then 23, was shot outside a Wheeling housing complex amidst a chaotic scene.

According to police, Orozco was affiliated with the Surenos street gang. A Wheeling police officer watched a group of teens whom he identified as Surenos chasing two other young men, later identified as Bryan Estrada and Jesus Sanchez. According to a dashcam video introduced at trial, the officer told the two to “get your ass over here, right here, don’t go anywhere.”

Police brought several young men to the station that night.

Sanchez told the police detective about an altercation earlier that day between a Sureno gang member and Sanchez and his friends.

At 3:40 a.m., Sanchez was given a gunshot residue test that produced a false positive result: There was no gunshot residue, but the test mistakenly showed that there was.

Sanchez was questioned the next morning, and as he denied that he was involved, he was told by detectives that he must be lying, based on the gunshot residue.

Crying, Sanchez said he wanted to go home, that he wanted his mother. The police kept questioning Sanchez, telling him either it was an accident or he did it on purpose: Which was it?

More than 50 minutes after a videotaped interview began—more than 11 hours after Sanchez was first handcuffed at the scene—he finally said that someone else had taken a  gun from him and shot it. The police continued their questioning, and 15 minutes later Sanchez said he did fire the gun, though he said it went off by accident.

In his retelling of the crime in the videotaped statement, Sanchez gave many facts that conflicted with the evidence, including the direction in which shots were fired.

During the videotaped interview, Sanchez asked for his mother a total of 28 times.

According to the three-judge opinion,  “No witness saw Sanchez with a gun. No witness saw Sanchez near the spot from which the fatal shot came. The prosecution showed no connection between Sanchez and the single spent bullet found at the scene. Police found no trace of antimony, barium, or lead on Sanchez’s hands and clothes.”

The opinion continues, “The prosecutor did not present a plausible account of Sanchez’s actions around the time of the shooting, and police admitted that Sanchez and the persons with him shortly before the shooting gave a plausible, consistent, exonerating account of Sanchez’s conduct. We hold that the prosecution did not present sufficient evidence to sustain the conviction. But here, the record leads to a further conclusion. The evidence convincingly shows that Sanchez did not murder Orozco.”