Ignacio Varela

Because he didn't speak English, Ignacio Varela was convicted of a murder he did not commit

After four members of a Mexican family were shot to death in 1991 in the stairwell of a building on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago, a survivor of the attack told police one of the killers was a man named Gilberto Varela. When police went to Varela’s apartment, they were met by a man who said he was not Varela but rather Rogelio Arroyo. Although the man in fact was who he said he was, he was arrested, along with three of his relatives — Isauro Sanchez, Ignacio Varela, and Joaquin Varela. All four were indicted nine days later for capital murder. Meanwhile, the man whom the survivor had identified as one of the killers was en route to Mexico — along with the three actual killers.

At the wrong men’s 1992 trial, prosecutors — lacking physical evidence — relied on identification testimony of an eyewitness who admitted being drunk at the time of the crime, and on a statement made by one of the defendants during interrogation. When interrogators told him — falsely — that his co-suspects had said he was present when the crime occurred, he replied, “Si ellos dicen que yo estuve alli, entonces ellos tambien estuvieron alli.” (“If they say I was there, then they must have been there too.”)

All four were found guilty and sentenced to life. In 1985, long after the convictions had been affirmed on appeal, the Mexican consul general in Chicago retained Gary W. Adair, an immigration lawyer, to investigate the case. Adair soon came to believe that the convicted men were innocent.

Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari interceded, and Governor James R. Thompson ordered a reinvestigation. Based on that investigation, Thompson, in one of his final acts before leaving office in 1991, commuted the sentences of the four men to time served. Eight months later, after further investigation, Governor Jim Edgar granted the men full pardons — but only after they agreed not to seek compensation for their wrongful convictions.

— Rob Warden