After serving 20 years of a 55-year prison sentence for the 1994 rape and kidnapping of an Illinois woman that the state now says he did not commit, Mexican immigrant Angel Gonzalez has yet to be set free.
On Monday, a state judge tossed Gonzalez's decades-old conviction for the abduction and rape of a 35-year-old Waukegan woman in Lake County, Illinois, after DNA tests showed that two still unidentified men committed the crime. Illinois prosecutors were forced to exonerate Gonzalez, but the 41-year-old was sent back to prison for allegedly damaging a prison sink while he was placed in solitary confinement in 1997.
Despite the fact that the initial case was dismissed, Gonzalez still remains behind bars for the charge of vandalizing the sink — which includes a separate three year sentence.
While serving the 20-year sentence, Mexico native Gonzalez's immigration visa expired, and according to his lawyers he is waiting to hear back from authorities on whether he will have to return to Mexico.
'This is just injustice upon injustice'
The Innocence Project, a group committed to investigating wrongful convictions in the US justice system, has been working on Gonzalez's case since 2012. Innocence Project Attorney Lauren Kaeseberg, who was part of a team working on the case, told VICE News that Gonzalez would be a citizen had he not been imprisoned, and that his entire family are naturalized citizens. Gonzalez's visa application was granted years ago, but had expired while he was in prison, she added.
Family members turned up to support Gonzalez during Monday's hearing, when Lake County State Attorney Michael Nerheim told the jury to dismiss the conviction.
"If words were enough, I'd say I'm sorry, and I am sorry," Nerheim told reporters. It was Nerheim's now-retired predecessor, Michael Waller, who prosecuted Gonzalez and several other local men who have also been exonerated as a result of new DNA evidence.
A reported five men, including Gonzalez, who were arrested in Lake County during Waller's tenure spent a total of 80 years in prison before they were released.
After the hearing, Gonzalez returned to prison to serve his three-year sentence for allegedly breaking the prison sink, which Kaeseberg says should be overturned.
"We are very hopeful that the convictions of the sink damage will also be vacated. The element of injustice is just outrageous… He never should have been there in the first place, and now he has to serve an additional sentence based on that. This is just injustice upon injustice," Kaeseberg said.
Gonzalez's arrest and conviction came about when the rape and kidnapping victim described a car that was similar to his, but was not a complete match, and provided a physical description of the perpetrator that vaguely matched Gonzalez's appearance.
Investigators also did not examine Gonzalez's alibi that night. On the night that the crime took place, Gonzalez was visiting his girlfriend in her sister's apartment, which was in the same complex as the victim's. Police pulled Gonzalez over while he was driving home that night, handcuffing him at the front of the vehicle. The victim, who was sitting in the back on the police car at the time, identified Gonzalez as one of the perpetrators — even though the headlights were gleaming on him.
The Innocence Project has said that the identification was weak — that the height of Gonzalez and the perpetrator did not match, and the victim didn't describe his goatee and facial birthmark.
Gonzalez' attorneys also highlighted that Gonzalez spoke very limited English when he gave his "confession." He was interrogated in both English and Spanish, but ultimately the statement Gonzalez signed convicting him of the crime was written in English, and verbally translated in Spanish. Attorneys said there was no audio or video recording when the confession was signed.
This language barrier was also a factor when Gonzalez pled guilty for the sink damage. He had spent a portion of his time in solitary confinement and had not picked up much English, and did not have a court interpreter present when he admitted to damaging the sink, which is also a legal claim, lawyers said.
Kaeseberg also said that Gonzalez "became a model prisoner" while incarcerated. While serving time over the past 20 years, he tried to create a positive presence, including artwork that was distributed to children's hospitals and churches.
"The world will be a better place for just having him in it because he is just such a great person," Kaeseberg explained.
"For him it's not only having his freedom back, but his name back, his reputation back. For all of these years this horrible conviction has hung over his head. Every prison he's been in and every person he has had contact with has known him to be a very vicious rapist. Now the world knows the truth that he's innocent," she added. "He told us yesterday that he's come back to life."