Written by Jennifer Lee
In December 2017, the Center on Wrongful Convictions (CWC)’s client Gabriel Solache was exonerated of murder charges that kept him behind bars for nearly twenty years—but relief was short-lived. Without missing a beat, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials took Mr. Solache into custody, where he now faces deportation to his native Mexico. Northwestern University Law Review sat down with the CWC’s Karen Daniel, Solache’s attorney, to discuss his exoneration, the involvement of now-discredited former Chicago police detective Reynaldo Guevara, and Mr. Solache’s upcoming immigration proceedings.
NULRO: How did the Center on Wrongful Convictions first get involved in Mr. Solache’s case?
KD: Mr. Solache was sentenced to death in 2000. While his case was on direct appeal, the Office of the State Appellate Defender’s Supreme Court Unit contacted our office to see if we would be willing to take on his case for a post-conviction investigation of his claims. We did. The lead attorney on the case was my late colleague Jane Raley. Mr. Solache filed his post-conviction petition in 2003, which was thrown out three months later by the judge. Jane worked on the appeal and was successful in 2006 (People v. Reyes (Ill. App. Ct. 2006)). That’s when I got on the case and stayed on it.
NULRO: Did the prosecution have any physical evidence linking Mr. Solache to any of the charges?
KD: No. There were three defendants: Mr. Solache, Arturo Reyes, and a woman named Adriana Meija. They were all immigrants, they lived in the same house, and they knew each other. The victims were a married couple who were murdered in their apartment, and their two children—a three-year-old and a baby—were kidnapped. Adriana Meija had told everyone that she was pregnant, and that she was going to the hospital to have a baby. When she came home, she had a baby and a three-year-old child. But the crime was being reported on the news, and the people in the home recognized the three-year-old child as the child who had been kidnapped. When Mr. Solache, Mr. Reyes, and Adriana Meija’s husband took the child to the police station, they became the suspects.
Adriana Meija’s DNA was found at the crime scene and one of the victims’ DNA was found on her clothing, but the two male defendants were not linked.
NULRO: What ultimately led to Mr. Solache’s charges being dismissed?
KD: Mr. Solache was convicted completely and solely on the basis of a confession written in English that he signed. It was handwritten by an Assistant State’s Attorney, in English. Mr. Solache did not at that time speak or read English.
When Mr. Solache went to the police station and became a suspect, Detective Reynaldo Guevara interrogated him alone. Mr. Solache said that Guevara beat him until he agreed to confess. Then the detective took Mr. Solache to an Assistant State’s Attorney for questioning, but she only spoke English. The detective was bilingual. Although the detective was supposedly translating, Mr. Solache said that Guevara was instead telling him what to say and to sign this paper, which he couldn’t read. That was the basis of the conviction.
What we had been learning around the time Mr. Solache’s case came to our attention was that Detective Guevara was being accused of all different kinds of serial misconduct, from beating suspects to falsifying evidence. To substantiate Mr. Solache’s claims, we set about putting together a dossier on the detective. We pulled together people who had claims against him, interviewing them or getting affidavits. We put all of that in our petition and argued that the question of the admissibility of Mr. Solache’s confession needed to be relitigated in light of this new information we had about Detective Guevara.
Ultimately, after many years of persuading different judges and courts, the final judge found that our evidence was credible and suppressed the confession, and the prosecutors dismissed the charges because there was nothing left.
NULRO: How did you find out about the deportation proceedings? Were you surprised by them?
KD: I wasn’t surprised. It had always been an issue in Mr. Solache’s case. It was listed in all the documents in the case that he was undocumented. As we got toward the end, I checked with the prison and knew an immigration detainer was lodged against him. We hoped that he could avoid being taken straight to ICE detention because of the Illinois Trust Act, which says that law enforcement officials, including places of detention, are prohibited from holding a person only on an immigration detainer. But ultimately it didn’t help. When Mr. Solache’s convictions were dismissed, I went to the Illinois Department of Corrections hoping he would be released, but he went straight into ICE custody inside the prison. He never stepped outside. I was there for quite a while, and they told me that he had left in an ICE van that had come and left through the back.
NULRO: How did law students contribute to your case?
KD: The very first students went to community meetings to get information about different victims of Detective Guevara. They interviewed possible victims, got statements, did research, organized our massive files. Later students helped write the first petition, the appeal, the second petition, and all sorts of pleadings. At the post-conviction hearing, students put on witnesses and one student put on Mr. Solache. Many other lawyers have copied the work we put together and filed it in similar lawsuits for other victims of Detective Guevara, so there have been a number of men who have been released from prison recently based on the work our students did and what Jane Raley did.