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In rare twist, ex-Chicago police officer testifies on behalf of man whose double-murder conviction is then vacated

Ex-Chicago cop Joe Sparks was once described by a top Cook County prosecutor as a “walking database of gang intelligence” integral to hundreds of investigations of Hispanic street gangs.

So imagine how surprising it was to a defense attorney when Sparks agreed to testify on behalf of his client, Francisco Benitez, who was hoping to get his conviction overturned in the killings of two kids in Humboldt Park.

Benitez, 52, was freed Tuesday after Cook County Judge Sophia Atcherson vacated his conviction for the 1989 fatal shootings of 14-year-old boys Prudencio Cruz and William Sanchez.

Joshua Tepfer, who represented Benitez in his post-conviction petition, said Sparks’ testimony in support of Benitez was a first for him.

“I’ve never had an officer involved in the arrest and investigation of a client voluntarily testify they got the wrong guy,” Tepfer said.

Tepfer said he’s helped exonerate nearly 300 people. “It’s quite unusual. Most cops don’t answer the door when I come knocking. I know Frankie is very appreciative.”

Benitez was released on electronic home monitoring because the case isn’t over. Prosecutors haven’t dropped the murder charges against Benitez. The next hearing is Sept. 26.

When Benitez was sentenced to life in prison in 1991, the judge told him: “This is the worse type of gang-related crime. This is a gang member out on the street who killed two innocent victims.”

But Benitez, who was 18 at the time of the killings, always said he was wrongfully convicted.

Sparks, 80, told Benitez’s family he thought the police got the wrong guy. So Tepfer asked him if he’d be willing to give an affidavit saying that. He agreed.

“I was one of the detectives involved in investigating the case for which Frankie Benitez is in prison,” the affidavit says. “I knew Frankie prior to his arrest. I never had a problem with him and I did not know him to be involved in criminal activity. I have my strong doubts Frankie committed this crime.”

In his handwritten May 13, 2022 affidavit, Sparks said Benitez “did not have the character to do so.”

He said he was shocked when witnesses identified Benitez as the killer. 

“I actually had a different suspect in mind but put Frankie’s picture in there because he had similar features to the other suspect and I needed fillers in the photo array.”

Sparks also testified at an evidentiary hearing for Benitez, who spent almost 34 years in prison. 

In her order vacating Benitez’s sentence, the judge pointed to newly discovered testimony from witnesses who identified a different person as the shooter; a “pattern and practice” of police misconduct by detectives Jerome Bogucki and Raymond Schalk that allegedly led to a coerced confession; and Sparks’ testimony that Benitez’s photo was only a “filler.”

Bogucki testified that no one engaged in any misconduct during the interrogations of Benitez, the judge noted in her order.

Sparks said he doesn’t think anyone framed Benitez or withheld evidence. He said Bogucki and Schalk were “two of the most legit” detectives he’d worked with.

“In all my years this was the only case that haunted me, and I tried for years to get someone to look at it again,” Sparks told the Chicago Sun-Times in an email. “Well, someone finally did.”

Still, he said, “I believe he was there but didn’t shoot.”

Bogucki and Schalk also were involved in the case of Thaddeus Jimenez, who was just 13 when he was arrested in connection with a killing in Avondale on the Northwest Side.

Jimenez’s murder conviction was later vacated and he was awarded $25 million in a federal wrongful conviction lawsuit against the city. His life later unraveled and he’s now back in prison.

https://chicago.suntimes.com/2023/8/31/23854419/rare-twist-ex-chicago-cop-testifies-double-murder-conviction In rare twist, ex-Chicago police officer testifies on behalf of man whose double-murder conviction is then vacated

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