Attorneys for a Chicago man convicted of a 1976 police killing argued before a packed Illinois appellate courtroom Thursday that the prisoner was found guilty and given a sentence of several hundred years by a judge trying to conceal his own corruption.
The hearing marked the latest attempt by inmate Ronnie Carrasquillo to seek release from prison through the courts after finding no hope at being paroled during his more than four decades of incarceration. Carrasquillo has consistently faced stark opposition in his parole attempts by both the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and members of the Chicago Police Department.
In October 1976, Chicago police officer Terrence Loftus was on his way home from work and in plainclothes when he stopped to break up a gang fight that had erupted in the early morning hours on the city’s Northwest Side. Carrasquillo, who had recently turned 18, fired a weapon, and Loftus was fatally wounded. After a nonjury trial Cook County Circuit Judge Frank Wilson found Carrasquillo guilty of murder in 1977, and sentenced him to serve 200-to-600 years in prison with parole eligibility. (Carrasquillo was sentenced before the Illinois legislature amended the law in 1978 to largely curtail the use of parole).
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Carrasquillo has long maintained that he was attempting to break up the melee by shooting above the crowd when he unintentionally struck the officer. Prosecutors contend that he aimed at Loftus.
Michael Deutsch, one of Carrasquillo’s attorneys, called the sentence “draconian,” noting Carrasquillo was 18 years old and had no criminal record. Deutsch told the three-judge Illinois Appellate Court panel that Wilson had not meaningfully considered Carrasquillo’s rehabilitative potential, and said an unbiased judge could have easily found Carrasquillo guilty of manslaughter, not murder.
Deutsch also argued that Carrasquillo’s sentence awards him no actual opportunity for parole, as the Illinois Prisoner Review Board — the state agency tasked with making release decisions for the small group of prisoners eligible for parole — repeatedly denies his client’s request on the basis that granting release would undermine the seriousness of the offense in killing a police officer.
“In the name of justice, don’t keep that man in prison,” Deutsch said.
Several uniformed officers and members of the Fraternal Order of Police attended the hearing, and the union’s local president, Kevin Graham, sat in the front row. Appellate Judge Bertina E. Lampkin offered an unusual admonishment at the close of the oral arguments, explaining her dismay at an undated photo included in the record showing several police officers surrounding members of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board as the board considered whether to grant Carrasquillo parole.
“I just don’t think it’s wise for policemen to stand behind the parole board in making their decision,” Lampkin said. “That was disturbing to me.”
The bulk of the arguments Thursday revolved around whether Wilson, the trial judge, was biased in his handling of the case because of his corrupt handling of a prior case.
About six months before Carrasquillo’s trial, Wilson acquitted Chicago mob hitman Harry Aleman of murder charges, resulting in intense backlash from both the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office and the media. A decade later, after a federal probe coined “Operation Greylord” revealed widespread judicial corruption in Cook County, investigators learned that Wilson had accepted a $10,000 bribe in exchange for Aleman’s acquittal.
As the investigation was underway, Wilson committed suicide. Aleman was later retried and convicted of murder after another Cook County judge found that the original trial was a sham.
Deutsch said Wilson used Carrasquillo’s high profile case to win back favor with the state and to rehabilitate his reputation after acquitting Aleman.
But Appellate Judge Jesse G. Reyes questioned why Wilson would care about his reputation, as he declined to run for retention to keep his court seat following Aleman’s and Carrasquillo’s trial.
Deutsch said in response that the judge’s pension and the potential FBI investigation that would later come to fruition would have influenced Wilson.
Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney Hareena Meghani-Wakely said there was no evidence that the earlier bribe had any impact on Carrasquillo’s trial or sentence, that the public criticism of Wilson had faded well before the judge presided over Carrasquillo’s trial, and that the federal probe into Wilson’s corruption only occurred a decade later.
Meghani-Wakely also noted that Wilson had in another case issued a 200-to-600 year sentence, showing that Carrasquillo’s sentence was not unusual. She asked the appellate court to uphold Cook County Associate Judge Alfredo Maldonado’s January 2018 decision declining to grant Carrasquillo a new trial.
One of the members of the panel, Appellate Court Judge Robert E. Gordon, was absent from arguments, but will help make the decision in the case.
Carrasquillo’s case was highlighted in an Injustice Watch series which examined the arbitrary way that the Illinois Prisoner Review Board decides the fate of a group of aging inmates who have been locked away since committing crimes before 1978, when Illinois changed its sentencing laws. Carrasquillo also has a claim pending before the Illinois Torture and Relief Commission, contending he was beaten by police when he was questioned about Loftus’s death.