Rogelio Arroyo

Rogelio Arroyo was convicted of a murder he did not commit — in part because he didn't speak English

Rogelio Arroyo and three members of his family — Isauro Sanchez, Ignacio Varela, and Joaquin Varela — were convicted in 1982 of a quadruple murder on the near northwest side of Chicago. None of the convicted men had anything to do with the crime.

Various factors contributed to their wrongful convictions — the failure of police to investigate other suspects immediately identified by witnesses, false or perjured eyewitness testimony, a statement by one of the defendants that police and prosecutors claimed was inculpatory, and ineffective assistance of counsel.

Milwaukee Avenue massacre

The victims were gunned down in a stairwell of an apartment building on Milwaukee Avenue where they were visiting relatives. Three other men who were with the victims at the time, Leoncio Quezada, Raul Ocampo, and Rogelio Medina, were wounded but survived the crime. Witnesses told police that all of the victims except one were named Sanchez and that the killers were members of another family — the Varelas. The families, whose roots were in Guerrero, Mexico, had been engaged in a feud for six years. Medina in fact named one of the assailants as Gilberto Varela.

When police went to Gilberto Varela's apartment, however, they found a man who claimed to be not Varela but Rogelio Arroyo. Nontheless, Arroyo was arrested on the spot. While he was being questioned, his relatives and soon-to-be codefendants were arrested. Meanwhile, Gilberto Varela was en route to Mexico with three other men he ultimately would acknowledge had committed the crime with him.

Codefendant's false 'confession'

In Chicago, as interrogation of the suspects in custody continued, the youngest of them, Joaquin Varela, age 16, made a statement that police claimed was tantamount to a confession. Told by Spanish-speaking interrogators that his friends had placed him at the scene of the crime, he allegedly replied: "Si ellos dicen yo estuve alla, ellos estuvieron al tambien entonces." ("If they say I was there, then they must have been there too.")

Two weeks before trial, Arroyo's lawyer died of a heart attack. The judge appointed a new lawyer, but gave him no time to prepare. The judge also denied a motion to suppress Joaquin Varela's inculpatory statement. He requested a jury, but the other defendants asked for a bench trial. All four were tried together, with a jury trying the facts in one case and the judge doing so in the other three. The only other evidence against the men was the purported eyewitness identification of Leoncio Quezada, one of the survivors of the shooting, who had a blood alcohol level when treated that night of 0.174, which was above the legal intoxication level. Despite the weak case, all four defendants were sentenced to natural life, the only alternative to a death sentence in a multiple murder case.

A cause célèbre

The case became a cause célèbre in Chicago's Mexican community, after Chicago magazine published an article by Bruce Rubenstein about the case. In 1990, Gilberto Varela confessed to the crime in a collect telephone call from Mexico to Margo DeLey, a research administrator specializing in comparative immigration policies at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Although the Illinois Appellate Court had affirmed the convictions and the Illinois and U.S. supreme courts had declined to review the case, Governor James R. Thompson ordered Spanish-speaking State Police officers to reinvestigate the case. As a result of that investigation Thompson commuted the men's life sentences in 1991, but only after they agreed not to sue for their wrongful arrest and imprisonment.