Lake County, Illinois Man Exonerated of Rape for Which He Served Two Decades
Based on DNA Evidence Proving Innocence, State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim Agrees to Reverse Conviction of Angel Gonzalez for 1994 Rape
Contact: Paul Cates,
(Chicago, IL; March 9, 2015) – Innocence Project and Illinois Innocence Project client Angel Gonzalez’s 1994 rape and kidnapping convictions were reversed today by a Lake County judge based on DNA testing proving his innocence. State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim, whose office worked with the innocence organizations to reinvestigate the case, consented to the reversal. Gonzalez wrongly served close to 21 years for the crime.
“Since taking office, State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim has shown a real commitment to justice in Lake County,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “His office readily consented to the DNA testing and moved quickly to reverse the conviction as soon as the testing proved Mr. Gonzalez’ innocence. This is a much welcome change from his predecessor who stubbornly fought for years to deny justice for several wrongly convicted people in Lake County. ”
Gonzalez was arrested shortly after 1 AM on July 11, 1994 based solely on the fact that his car was similar to the car that had been used in a kidnapping and rape that occurred sometime between 9:15 and 10:00 PM on the evening of the 10
. The victim had been taken from her apartment complex by two men, driven to the backyard of a nearby residence and raped by both men. The victim told the police that her attackers drove a “late model, dark colored, four-door sedan with tinted windows.” After arriving at the victim’s apartment around 1 AM and speaking with police on the scene, the victim’s boyfriend noticed a dark 1979 Cadillac sedan with tinted windows exiting the apartment complex and said he did didn’t think the car belonged there. Officers took down the license plate number.
The Cadillac belonged to Gonzalez who had been spending time with his girlfriend at her sister’s apartment, the same complex where the victim lived. Shortly after returning his girlfriend home, he was pulled over by the police. Despite the fact that Gonzalez didn’t match the victim’s description in several critical aspects — he was shorter rather than two inches taller than her and had a notable goatee and dime-sized birthmark under his right eye that she hadn’t described — the officers conducted an inherently suggestive show-up where Gonzalez, handcuffed, was escorted out of the squad car by his elbows and placed in front of the patrol car where the victim was seated. It was 1:30 in the morning, dark out, and Mr. Gonzalez was illuminated by headlights. The victim, who is white, identified Gonzalez, who is Hispanic, from the back seat of another squad car.
Rather than investigate Gonzalez’s alibi, the arresting officers took him to the station house were he was stripped of his clothing, forced to wear a paper jump suit and held in custody for nine hours before police began their interrogation of him. Gonzalez was 20 years old, had no criminal history, and spoke very little English at the time. He was left in the interrogation room and told to write a statement about the crime in Spanish. When this so called “confession” didn’t match the known facts of the crime, the officers typed a statement in English, which he could not read but signed after they translated for him. Despite the fact that video equipment was available, the only thing recorded was Gonzalez agreeing in the statement read to him by the officers. At trial, the interrogating officers admitted that they fed him information about the crime and lied to him, confronting him with false evidence they claimed implicated him. Even still, the confession was inconsistent with the actual facts of the crime.
Before officers started interrogating Gonzalez, they spoke to his girlfriend who confirmed that she had been with Gonzalez the evening before. The sister of Gonzalez’s girlfriend was also contacted by the police a day or two after the incident and immediately went to the station to tell the detective that Gonzalez had been in her apartment with her sister. The conversation lasted no more than five minutes and the detective didn’t take a formal statement.
At trial, Gonzalez presented four witnesses who confirmed that he had been with his girlfriend and her sister at the sister’s apartment at the time of the crime. Despite this, he was convicted of aggravated sexual assault and aggravated kidnapping and sentenced to 40 years.
“Officers jumped to the conclusion that Mr. Gonzalez was the perpetrator based entirely on the victim’s vague description of the car used in her attack. It was a tremendous stretch to think that someone who had just committed such a brutal crime would return to the scene just hours after it occurred,” said Mr. Gonzalez’s lead counsel, Vanessa Potkin, Senior Staff Attorney with the Innocence Project. “Once the victim identified him in the most suggestive type of identification procedure, the police were convinced he did it. As one officer even admitted at trial, no evidence would have changed their minds.”
Potkin continued, “This case shows the danger of using coercive interrogation techniques aimed at extracting a confession from someone police have deemed ‘guilty.’ When that initial determination is wrong, which it often is, the result is a false confession by a completely innocent person. Police had an obligation to investigate Gonzalez’s alibi. Instead their conversations with his alibi witnesses were aimed at gaining ammunition for their interrogation. Meanwhile, the real perpetrators slip away.””
In 2001, Gonzalez obtained post-conviction DNA testing with the help of counsel in Illinois, but the testing was only able to identify one male profile. Since the victim was raped by two assailants, the those test results were unable to prove Gonzalez’s innocence. The Innocence Project accepted Gonzalez’s case in 2012 and enlisted the help of the Illinois Innocence Project as local counsel. Shortly after State’s Attorney Michael Nerheim took office in 2013, the Innocence Project asked Nerheim to consent to testing, which he quickly did. The testing was able to identify DNA profiles of two males, neither of which matched Gonzalez. Male DNA from the shorts the victim wore and other physical evidence recovered from the victim matched to one male and sperm evidence from the rape kit and shorts matched to another. Nerheim joined the innocence organizations in requesting that Gonzalez’s convictions be vacated, which was granted today by Judge Victoria Rossetti.
“While Illinois has moved in the right direction towards reforming the way in which eyewitness identification procedures are handled, there is still much work to be done” said Lauren Kaeseberg, Staff Attorney at the Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois, Springfield. “Despite the fact that misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions, juries still find eyewitness identification accounts to be some of the most compelling evidence of guilt. Cases like this continue to demonstrate that we must remain vigilant in ensuring that reforms are put in place and followed by law enforcement.”
Notably, four of the officers involved in Gonzalez’s conviction were involved in other Lake County wrongful convictions or police brutality cases. The officers who interrogated Gonzalez, Artis Yancey, a Detective at the time who later became the Police Chief, and Detective Lou Marquez, were, according to news reports, also responsible for coercing James Edwards into falsely confessing to the murder of Fred Reckling. Edwards was eventually exonerated of the crime based on DNA evidence. Both Yancey and Marquez are deceased. News reports also reveal that Lieutenant Edward Dennis, who initially stopped Gonzalez, was investigated for police brutality against Lanny Smith after Smith wound up with a broken jaw and teeth when Smith resisted arrest. Dennis stopped Smith despite the fact that he didn’t match the description of a gunman being chased by police. David Osterag, who worked as a special investigator for the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office, prepared drawings and photographs of the victim’s apartment and the crime scenes. Osterag was involved in the wrongful conviction of Juan Rivera, Jr., who was exonerated in 2012.
Gonzalez is expected to be released very soon. At the time of his arrest, he had been approved for a U.S. visa. Claudia Valenzuela of the National Immigration Justice Center, Maria Kutnick, Greg McConnell and Dave Koropp of Winston & Strawn LLP, and the Consulate General of Mexico in Chicago have provided invaluable assistance as we work to remove an immigration hold so that so that Gonzalez can be reunited with his parents and three siblings who all reside in Waukegan.
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