by Todd Feurer, CBS Chicago web producer

CHICAGO (CBS) — Chicago taxpayers will soon be on the hook for $20.5 million in damages to two men who spent 23 years in prison for a murder before they were cleared, in one of several wrongful convictions tied to disgraced former CPD Detective Reynaldo Guevara.

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Without discussion, the City Council Finance Committee on Monday unanimously approved the settlement with Jose Montanez and Armando Serrano, setting up a final vote by the full City Council on Tuesday.

The two were convicted in the 1993 murder of Rodrigo Vargas, whose body was found in a van parked near a Chicago elementary school, but were later released after the Illinois Appellate Court reversed the convictions, finding “profoundly alarming acts of misconduct” in the Vargas murder probe, and Cook County prosecutors later asked a judge to dismiss the case altogether.

Attorneys from the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago said Montanez and Serrano were framed by former Chicago Police Det. Reynaldo Guevara.

Montanez and Serrano’s nightmare began when eight bullets ripped through a van, killing 28-year-old Rodrigo Vargas. Initially, police had no suspect or motive. But that changed after Guevara connected with a jailhouse informant who testified that Montanez and Serrano told him they did the crime.

“His entire account was fabricated based on facts fed to him by Detective Guevara,” Russell Ainsworth, an attorney who represents Montanez, told the CBS 2 Investigators in 2016, four months after the pair were released from prison.

Chief Assistant Corporation Counsel Jeff Levine said the informant who implicated Montanez and Serrano has since recanted his testimony, saying Guevara threatened and coerced him into pointing the finger at Montanez and Serrano.

The $20.5 million settlement with Serrano and Montanez is not the first multimillion dollar payout Chicago taxpayers are on the hook for due to claims Guevara framed suspects, and it likely won’t be the last.

Dozens of other convictions linked to the now-retired Guevara have been thrown out. He’s been accused of manufacturing false evidence and framing the innocent.

In 2018, a federal jury awarded $17 million in damages to Jacques Rivera, who spent 21 years in prison for the murder of 16-year-old Felix Valentin before he was exonerated in 2011.

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Meantime, in other business on Monday, the Finance Committee also approved to other settlements involving claims of police misconduct.

The committee backed a $900,000 settlement for Kehinda Mitchell in another wrongful conviction case against Chicago Police. Levine told aldermen Mitchell served 15 years in prison for the 1992 murder of a gang member before he was released in 2008, and his conviction was later thrown out.

Mitchell’s conviction was vacated after he accused police of fabricating his confession. Levine said after Mitchell, who was only 15 at the time, and his mother learned police wanted to speak to him about the murder of a gang member in 1992, they went to a police station to meet with police and prosecutors for an interview.

At one point during the interview, Mitchell’s mother left the room, and police and prosecutors said he confessed to the murder, but when his mom later returned with an attorney, he refused to sign the confession, according to Levine.

Mitchell’s first trial in April 1995 ended in a hung jury, but he was convicted after a retrial in July 1995, thanks in part to a new witness who implicated him in the murder, Levine told aldermen.

That conviction was later vacated after Mitchell accused police of “completely fabricating” his confession, and Levine said the witness who testified against him at the retrial is no longer available, which would put the city at risk of paying much more than the $900,000 settlement if his lawsuit were to go to trial.

Aldermen unanimously approved the settlement for Mitchell without discussion.

The other settlement approved by the Finance Committee on Monday was a $300,000 payment to Alexander Washington Riley, who was convicted of selling heroin and sentenced to 30 months of probation in May 2011, after officers identified the wrong suspect, mistaking him for a different Alexander Riley, according to Levine.

After trial, Riley claimed he had ineffective counsel, as he had an alibi his attorney did not present at trial, showing he was somewhere else at the time of the drug sale. In 2019, his conviction was vacated and he filed a lawsuit against the city seeking $1.3 million in damages.

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All three settlements now go to the full City Council for a vote on Tuesday.

CBS 2 Chicago Staff