This story was originally published by Injustice Watch, a Chicago-based nonprofit newsroom that examines issues of equity and justice in the court system. Subscribe to Injustice Watch’s newsletter here.
CHICAGO — A man imprisoned since 1976 in the shooting death of a Chicago police officer could be freed this year after an appellate court panel set aside his 200-year sentence as excessive and found his chances for parole were unfairly denied.
This decision comes after decades of failed appeals filed by attorneys of 65-year-old Ronnie Carrasquillo, who was 18 in 1976 when he fired into a gang-related melee and killed Chicago officer Terrence Loftus, who was in plain clothes and trying to break up the fight.
In its 27-page opinion last month, the appellate court panel ruled Carrasquillo should be resentenced based on changing legal precedents regarding how youthful offenders are treated and how mitigating factors, such as prison rehabilitation, are considered in sentencing.
It also ruled Cook County Circuit Court Judge Alfredo Maldonado erred when he decided Carrasquillo’s original sentence of 200 to 600 years is not a de facto life sentence just because he has been eligible for parole for decades.
“Mr. Carrasquillo’s excessive sentence threatens to defeat the effectiveness of the parole system by keeping him incarcerated long after he has been effectively rehabilitated,” wrote Appellate Justice Freddrenna M. Lyle in the majority opinion, issued Aug. 18. “Although Mr. Carrasquillo has had the apparent opportunity for release, because of his sentence and the offense for which he was convicted, such opportunity will never be ‘meaningful,’ despite his demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”
READ: Injustice Watch’s 2017 series, ‘The Long Wait,’exploring the Illinois Prisoner Review Board‘s process for deciding on parole for a group of inmates who remain in prison for serious crimes committed before 1978.
The court declined a request by Carrasquillo’s attorneys to reassign the case to a new judge for resentencing. Nevertheless, the attorneys said they are optimistic he will soon be released.
“The lawyers and Ronnie’s family remain hopeful that ultimately he will get a new sentencing hearing, and that the new sentence will be time served and he can finally go home,” said Charles Hoffman, an attorney with the Illinois Office of the State Appellate Defender.
Hoffman said Carrasquillo’s legal team asked the appellate court on Wednesday to order his release while he waits to see whether prosecutors appeal the appellate ruling to the Illinois Supreme Court.
“I am hoping the court will rule on the motion by Monday,” Hoffman said in an email. “It could go either way.”
Representatives of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and the Illinois Prisoner Review Board declined to comment.
At the center of his most recent appeals was a landmark 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Miller v. Alabama, which prohibits offenders 17 years old and younger from being sentenced to mandatory life without parole. A few years later, in 2019, the Illinois Supreme Court went a step further, ruling in People v. Buffer a 40-year sentence is a de facto life sentence for a juvenile offender.
Carrasquillo turned 18 just five months before the shooting, but the legal precedents have applied in other cases in which 18-year-old defendants have established their emotional development was equivalent to a 17-year-old at the time of the offense, according to the ruling. At Carrasquillo’s evidentiary hearing in 2019, a forensic psychologist testified Carrasquillo fit that definition, a finding that was not contested by attorneys representing the government.
During the hearing, Maldonado also heard testimony from fellow prisoners, family members and even politicians — all of whom testified about his rehabilitation, mentorship, and stellar record while in prison. In the end, Maldonado ruled against a new sentence for Carrasquillo because he has been eligible for parole for decades.
One dissenting appellate justice, Justice David R. Navarro, agreed.
“The trial court here determined that although Mr. Carrasquillo had not been granted parole, he nonetheless had the opportunity for parole,” wrote Navarro in his dissent. “The majority opines that because of his sentence and the offense for which he was convicted, he will never be granted parole. I disagree.”
The two justices in the majority argued the now-deceased trial judge was sending a clear message to the parole board.
“By entering an indeterminate sentence of 200 to 600 years, the sentencing judge was sending a message to the board that Mr. Carrasquillo should not be granted parole, even if he were eligible,” the majority wrote. “This is an edict that the board has evidently followed.”
The opinion pointed to the “more than 30 times” Carrasquillo has been denied parole, “despite the fact that the board recognized his extensive rehabilitative record.” Most recently, he was denied parole in an 8-1 vote this past May.
Carrasquillo’s case was featured in a 2017 Injustice Watch series entitled “The Long Wait,” which examined the cases of 122 aging men and women locked up for decades in state prisons who, despite being eligible for parole, were consistently denied it. The series exposed inconsistencies, arbitrary decisions, and the influence of politics and outside interests at the 15-member Illinois Prisoner Review Board.
Carrasquillo had garnered a wealth of support in his bid for freedom, including one of the prosecutors who brought the case to trial, Injustice Watch reported. But the board also considered other factors about Carrasquillo’s case, including the corruption of the original trial judge, who died by suicide after being implicated in the FBI’s Operation Greylord, in which judges were charged with taking bribes.
However, the vast majority of law enforcement — including Chicago police officers who at times came by the busload to parole hearings on Carrasquillo’s case — have worked to prevent his release.
“They just have this attitude about Ronnie … and refuse to give him parole,” said Michael Deutsch, one of his post-conviction attorneys.
At trial, prosecutors argued Carrasquillo intentionally aimed at Loftus as the officer — in plain clothes — tried to break up a gang fight. Carrasquillo has maintained he was aiming above the crowd to try to stop the melee.
In 1978, one year after Carrasquillo was convicted, Illinois abolished the parole system in favor of set sentences — a move designed to keep people in prison longer. Before then, judges often sentenced people to an indeterminate sentence, all with the periodic chance to seek release through a system designed to reward rehabilitation.
The timing of his 1977 conviction just before the new law took effect prompted prosecutors to allow Carrasquillo to choose under which criteria he wanted to be sentenced. Fearing he’d never have a chance at leaving prison, he opted for an indeterminate sentence. Cook County Judge Frank Wilson sentenced him to 200 to 600 years, and he entered Illinois Department of Corrections custody in January 1977.
Carrasquillo has been asking for parole since 1984 and came close to being released a few times before. In 2008, he won a majority of voting members: six in favor, five against, and two absent. But state law requires the approval of a majority of the board, which had 13 members at the time. Even in the times Carrasquillo has come close, the board ultimately denied parole on the grounds it would “depreciate the seriousness of the offense.”
Carrasquillo officially renounced his gang membership in 1993. Twenty years later, in 2013, he submitted an affidavit to then-Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan reaffirming the renunciation. While inside prison, he has earned a bachelor’s degree in theology, helped steer younger prisoners to a better path, and has kept an almost-spotless disciplinary record, Deutsch added.
“They’ve said that he’s [been] fully rehabilitated for 20 years already,” Deutsch said, emphasizing Carrasquillo has already served nearly 47 years — more than a de facto life sentence — behind bars.
Though the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office officially wrote in 2020 it did “not oppose the granting of parole” to Carrasquillo, there is a chance the state will appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court.
The state’s attorney’s office filed a petition for the appellate court to rehear the case following its August ruling, but the court denied the request. Prosecutors have until Oct. 4 to appeal.
“I believe that the state’s theory is that what the appellate court did was overrule the parole board, and the courts have no business overruling the parole board,” Hoffman said.
If the government does not appeal, Carrasquillo’s case will go back to Maldonado for resentencing. If the government does appeal, Carrasquillo will remain incarcerated unless he’s granted bond, Hoffman said.
Carrasquillo is currently housed at the Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Center, a facility for those with less than four years left on their sentence. The DOC describes the center as a place for those who are “ready to make needed changes in order to successfully reintegrate into their community.”
On the DOC’s website, Carrasquillo’s projected release date is March 7, 2266