Appellate court denies new trial for Chicago man convicted months after judge accepted a bribe in mob case

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An appellate court last week rejected a request for a new trial by a Chicago man who alleged that the judge who convicted him did so to distract from his own corruption in acquitting a mob hitman after accepting a bribe.

Ronnie Carrasquillo, 61, was convicted by Cook County Circuit Judge Frank Wilson for the 1976 shooting of plainclothes Chicago police officer Terrence Loftus. Prosecutors contended at trial that Carrasquillo aimed at Loftus, who had pulled over during the early morning hours on Chicago’s Northwest Side to break up a gang fight. Carrasquillo, 18 when the shooting happened, has maintained that he meant to shoot above the crowd to stop the melee.

Carrasquillo is one of a winnowing group of aging inmates in Illinois with regular parole opportunities who committed crimes before a 1978 law curbed the use of parole in the state. Over the course of three decades, Carrasquillo has been routinely denied parole by the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, reasoning that release would “deprecate the seriousness of the offense” he committed in the 1970s. After giving up hope, Carrasquillo has turned to the courts in seeking release.

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In 2017, Carrasquillo argued unsuccessfully during a hearing before Cook County Circuit Court Judge Alfredo Maldonado that his conviction and 200 to 600-year sentence should be void because judge Wilson’s actions in the case were a means to divert attention from his previous corrupt acquittal of Chicago mob enforcer Harry Aleman. Maldonado remained unconvinced that there was a connection between Aleman and Carrasquillo’s cases. In January 2018, Maldonado denied Carrasquillo a new trial. The appellate court upheld that ruling last week.

Carrasquillo’s case “was not sandwiched tightly between other bribery cases but rather occurred seven months after Judge Wilson’s only known bribery case,” states the unanimous opinion, authored by Appellate Judge Robert Gordon and joined by fellow Appellate Judges Bertina Lampkin and Eileen O’Neill Burke. (Recent Illinois Supreme Court candidate Jesse Reyes was originally assigned to the panel and participated during oral arguments, but was later replaced by Burke on the panel).

Gordon wrote in the opinion that Operation Greylord, a sweeping FBI investigation into a widespread judicial corruption and bribery scandal, did not launch until three years after Wilson’s decision in Carrasquillo’s case. Wilson himself was not investigated until a decade later, after former mob lawyer Robert Cooley began cooperating with federal authorities, sharing information about the bribe he had arranged between the judge and Aleman, the opinion states. Wilson later committed suicide. Aleman was retried and convicted.

When the appellate panel denied Carrasquillo’s request for a new trial last week, judges noted that the swell of media attention following Aleman’s acquittal focused on whether mob threats influenced Wilson’s decision, not if the judge had done anything wrong.

But it wasn’t all bad news for Carrasquillo. The court granted him an opportunity to address issues about his 200 to 600-year sentence based on his age at the time of the crime.

Several recent Illinois and U.S. Supreme Court decisions have created sentencing protections for juveniles who commit serious crimes.

Carrasquillo turned 18 about five months before the shooting.

The Illinois Supreme Court in October 2018 ruled that protections for juveniles did not extend to an 18-year-old defendant. But in that ruling the court left open the possibility that the same factors used to trigger protections for juveniles could be considered in cases of youthful offenders. That decision and others relied on the growing body of research showing that the brain continues to develop into one’s early 20s, including parts of the brain that are responsible for impulse control and understanding consequences.

“Judge Wilson, back in 1977, could not have looked into his crystal ball and predicted all the literature and court cases that had yet to be written about youthful offenders,” the opinion states. Nor had the judge considered Carrasquillo’s impulsiveness or the peer pressure that existed the early morning the 18-year-old “dashed out of a party in the middle of the night with a gun to go to an area where there was a fight.”

Police and prisoner review board

An undated photo provided by prisoner Ronnie Carrasquillo of police officers surrounding members of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board.

The opinion also addressed evidence Carrasquillo cited as proof that he has not actually had fair opportunities for parole because the victim in his case was a police officer. The panel noted an affidavit from former Prisoner Review Board chairman Jorge Montes, who said in the statement that he knew there were current and former members who would never vote in favor of parole for someone who had killed a member of law enforcement. Another was a photo, which Judge Lampkin described as “disturbing” during oral arguments because it showed officers standing right behind the board members as they deliberated.

“We do not know the dimensions of the room, the seating facilities, and the area where the proceedings occurred,” the opinion states, “but suggest that any further parole hearing on this case be conducted in a large enough area where there would be adequate seating for the audience.”

A previous version of this story incorrectly identified which Justice Burke had conferred with the majority opinion. It was Appellate Judge Eileen O’Neil Burke.