A man who has spent more than three decades behind bars for the 1989 murders of two boys in Chicago went free Tuesday after a judge vacated his sentence.
Judge Sophia Atcherson granted Francisco Benitez’s petition on innocence grounds and gave him a personal recognizance bond, according to a press release from the Exoneration Project.
Benitez was just 18 years old when he was arrested on two first-degree murder charges in the April 28, 1989, slayings of Prudencio Cruz and William Sanchez, both 14. He was convicted three years later and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Local TV news cameras were there when he was released from the Cook County Jail where he was greeted by family members.
“It’s indescribable,” he told reporters while wearing a Chicago Cubs jersey.
His mother was also there to greet him.
“This has been a very, very long road, and I’m glad my son is coming home,” Benitez’s mother Betty Benitez said.
Benitez’s lawyers presented evidence at an April hearing that featured testimony from eyewitnesses about who really killed the boys and from the arresting detective who said he always believed police arrested the wrong person, the press release said. The lawyers also argued the detectives responsible for his conviction, Jerome Bogucki and Raymond Schalk, were at the heart of two other since-vacated murder convictions — those of Thaddeus Jimenez and James Fletcher — that were tossed because of coerced and manipulated witnesses.
Jimenez won a $25 million wrongful conviction lawsuit against the City of Chicago in 2012. Bogucki admitted to violating Jimenez’s civil rights.
The Chicago Tribune reported at the time of Benitez’s sentencing that Cruz and Sanchez were hurrying home to Sanchez’s uncle’s home on the city’s west side to meet their curfew. Prosecutors claimed Benitez was a gang member out looking for rivals who were in the area. When he couldn’t find them, he shot the two boys instead.
“He snuffed out the wrong people,” the prosecutor told a judge before sentencing. “He killed them, murdered them, for no reason at all, complete strangers, just because he was out gangbanging that night.”
The judge sentenced Benitez to life in prison and said he only avoided the death penalty because he was 18 and didn’t have any prior criminal record.
“This is the worse type of gang-related crime,” the judge said at the time. “This is a gang member out on the street who killed two innocent victims.”
With the vacated sentence, the Cook County State Attorney’s Office must decide whether to reissue charges and prosecute Benitez again. A spokesperson declined comment, citing pending litigation. A court hearing is scheduled for Sept. 26, prosecutors said.
Benitez, now 52, has maintained his innocence and said he was never at the scene of the murders.
“I was taken from my Mother, Father, Brothers, Sister and Family at the age of 18 yrs old when I was arrested, charged and sentence[d] to natural life in prison for two double Murders that I did not commit,” he wrote on his website. “Maybe as you read this [you’re] wondering is this guy saying the truth or is he really a murder[er], Well I’m not a murder[er] I’m a an innocent man that was wrongfully convicted and I’m here to prove my innocence.”
As he left the jail, Benitez and his family were reportedly headed to the famed hot dog diner Jimmy’s Red Hots to enjoy his first meal as a free man.
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