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Two Hispanic inmates released after 23 years behind bars; charges dropped

Jose Montanez, 48, and Armando Serrano, 43, were released after allegations of misconduct by police investigators.
22 Jul 2016 – 01:10 PM EDT

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Armando Serrano and Jose Montanez were released after 23 years in prison for a crime they did not commit Crédito: Illinois Department of Corrections

CHICAGO (AP) -- Two imprisoned Puerto Rican men walked free this week after prosecutors in Chicago dropped charges against them for a 1993 murder after allegations of misconduct by police investigators.

Jose Montanez, 48, and Armando Serrano, 43, were released after Cook County prosecutors announced their decision not to retry the men. Prosecutors' decision came after an appeals court ruling last month found "profoundly alarming acts of misconduct" led to the men's convictions in the death of Rodrigo Vargas.

"The principal witness from the trial has since submitted an affidavit that the trial testimony he gave was 'false in all respects' and it was coerced by the detectives investigating the murder," the court stated in its ruling.

Both men have long said they are innocent.

More than a dozen family members greeted Montanez as he walked out of prison in Danville, the Chicago Sun Times reported. Prison guards their horns and cheered as they drove past Montanez’s impromptu roadside press conference, ” according to Russell Ainsworth, an attorney with The Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago who represents Montanez.

“He couldn’t quite believe what was happening,” Ainsworth said. “He welled up with tears when they asked him to state his name and date of birth for the last time, something he’d done thousands of times in the last 23 years.”

"I'm so happy I don't know what to say," said Montanez's mother, Carmen Montanez, crying for a moment outside court on Wednesday shortly before their release. "I was praying to God every day that this day would come. Thank God it's finally over with and I can have my son home finally and I can enjoy a Christmas, a Thanksgiving and a birthday for him that we've missed for 23 years."

Both Serrano and Montanez were convicted and sentenced to 55 years in prison on the testimony of Francisco Vicente, a heroin addict who allegedly told police Detective Reynaldo Guevara that the two men had confessed to killing Vargas as he left his apartment for work.

Vicente later recanted his testimony, telling students from Northwestern University's Medill Justice Project in 2004 that Guevara fed him the story.

"He was a heroin addict who had six felony cases pending against him at the time and he took a deal in exchange for his testimony, which he later recanted and said was coerced by the Chicago police detective who worked the case," said Montanez's attorney Russell Ainsworth, who is with The Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago.

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