Efren Melchor

Around midnight on April 30, 1990, Steven Botello was shot to death in a drive-by shooting on the northwest side of Chicago. The only eyewitness, 16-year-old Luis Ortiz, told police the fatal shot was fired from a car carrying four young men. Six days later, he viewed a police lineup. There were only four men in the lineup, and Ortiz identified two of them — Efren Melchor, as the gunman, and Ancermo Paredes, as one of the passengers in the car.

Paredes waived a jury and was acquitted at a 1991 bench trial, but Melchor jumped bail and was not rearrested until nearly a decade later. Meanwhile, Ortiz had died. Without his testimony, there was no evidence to link Melchor to the murder — a problem that was overcome when Judge Fred G. Suria agreed that a prosecutor could read Ortiz’s testimony at the Paredes trial to the jury at Melchor’s 2003 trial. Melchor relied on an alibi defense, corroborated by a time card indicating he was at work at the time of the murder, but the jury found him guilty, and Suria sentenced him to 40 years in prison.

The Illinois Appellate Court reversed the conviction in 2007, and the charges were dismissed. While the testimony of a dead man is not automatically barred, said the Appellate Court, it was untrustworthy in this case, given that the only judge who heard Ortiz testify in the flesh did not believe him. Had Ortiz been available to testify at Melchor’s trial, he would not have been a sterling witness. Between the Paredes trial and his death in 1998, the court noted, Ortiz had 15 adult felony arrests and had used five different aliases.

— Rob Warden