Two men who have maintained their innocence in a deadly 1986 fire walked free early Friday morning after an appeals court questioned the evidence that sent them to prison for life.
Arthur Almendarez and John Galvan were convicted of first-degree murder and arson after a fire killed two brothers in September 1986. The two were released from Cook County Jail as prosecutors weigh their next move.
Almendarez came out first, at 12:10 a.m., and Galvan came out an hour later.
“I still don’t believe this is happening right now,” Almendarez said as he walked away from the jail. “I didn’t think they’d ever let me out. I still don’t know how to be free.”
Galvan declined to speak Friday morning as he was greeted by family and friends.
Almendarez and Galvan will appear in court July 21 for a status hearing. Attorneys for both men hope their cases will be dropped.
“We will continue to fight for them until they are found fully innocent,” said Tara Thompson, an attorney with the Exoneration Project who is representing Galvan.
Thompson first took up the case in 2008. She later partnered with Chicago attorney Joshua Tepfer — also with the Exoneration Project — to work on both men’s cases.
“I’m hopeful next week will go well. The evidence is very clear that these men are innocent,” Tepfer said. “This highlights how broken CPD is and how broken this city is.”
On Sept. 21, 1986, two men were killed in a fire at 2603 W. 24th Place. Investigators suspected arson, according to court documents.
Nine months later, Almendarez and Galvan were arrested and charged in the deadly fire. They were convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole for first-degree murder and aggravated arson.
The two have maintained their innocence and claim two Chicago detectives abused them and coerced them into signing statements confessing to the crime.
An appellate judge ruled there was no other evidence aside from the signed statements connecting the men to the crime and a new trial was needed. The court cited the detectives’ history of coercing confessions and said the statements weren’t enough evidence.
“Serving a life sentence without parole for a crime you didn’t commit is not easy,” Almendarez said. “I’ve tried not to let the anger poison my soul. But I have been so mad.”
Earlier Thursday, a judge tossed out the murder convictions of brothers Juan and Rosendo Hernandez who claimed they were framed by Chicago detective Reynaldo Guevara for a 1997 fatal shooting.
“This has been a unique day on 27th and California,” Tepfer said, who is also representing the Hernandez brothers. “I have mixed emotions. It’s exciting, infuriating. I stopped to calculate it — 120 years of wrongful conviction of four innocent men.”
The Hernandez brothers are set to be released Friday from the Dixon Correctional Center after prosecutors decided to drop the case.
“Based on our review of this case, which included allegations of misconduct involving Detective Guevara, we agree with the judge’s decision and noted on the record that we will not pursue a new trial,” the Cook County state’s attorney’s office said in a statement.
Family and friends started gathering outside Cook County Jail, waiting for Almendarez and Galvan, at 8 a.m. on Thursday. They stayed outside the jail until the early hours on Friday.
Among the crowd was John Horton, who became friends with Almendarez in 1995 when they were both incarcerated.
Horton said he was wrongfully convicted when he was a teenager for a 1993 murder and robbery in Rockford. He was freed 23 years later, in February 2017, after Tepfer and the Exoneration Project took up his case.
Following his release, Horton told Tepfer about Almendarez and the Exoneration Project took his case.
“Arthur’s release is a joyous and painful feeling,” Horton said. “He and I bonded right away when we met, and we didn’t even know the other was innocent right away.”
Lydia Villalobos, Almendarez’s little sister, was also outside the jail waiting for her brother. She was 11 when her brother was jailed.
“We have tried to keep the faith, year after year, trial after trial,” she said. “Our mom has passed away, and she would always say that he’s coming home.”
Villalobos came prepared Thursday. She had a change of clothes for her brother and a bottle of cologne he requested. She was the first to hug him as he walked out of the jail gates.
“I have to learn how to be free, how to be a man,” Almendarez said. “I was 20 years old when I went in and all I’ve learned is how to be a convict.”