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Student Investigation Calls Into Question Murder Conviction

December 8, 2011 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- The 1998 murder conviction of a Chicago man who to date has served 13 years in prison is called into question in an in-depth article by Northwestern University students published today (Dec. 8) on the Medill Innocence Project website at www.medillinnocenceproject.org.

A behind-the-scenes video, two interactive graphics -- a crime-scene map and a breakdown of discrepancies in the witnesses’ accounts -- and thousands of pages of public documents also are posted.

During the recently ended 10-week academic term, seven Medill undergraduates tracked down witnesses who never testified at the trial of Ariel Gomez. Gomez is accused of a fatal drive-by shooting that took place on June 13, 1997, the night the Chicago Bulls clinched their fifth championship. The victim, Concepcion Diaz, was 32; Gomez was 17.

The Dec. 8 article is the culmination of an investigative journalism class taught by Professor Alec Klein, a best-selling author and former Washington Post award-winning investigative reporter who now directs the Medill Innocence Project.

The undergraduates based their reporting on interviews with eyewitnesses; experts in gangs, ballistics and forensic pathology; a prison official; Gomez and his family; attorneys; seven Freedom of Information Act requests; and court, police and medical records.

Among their findings:

• Police tried to pressure at least two witnesses into identifying Gomez as Diaz’s murderer, the witnesses said. A third witness said police tried to coerce her into identifying Gomez as the killer, according to internal memos by law students who worked with an attorney who once represented Gomez. None of these eyewitnesses were called to testify at the first-degree murder trial. 

• Gomez claims one of the lead detectives beat a false confession out of him. That same detective has been accused of manipulating witnesses and coercing confessions in dozens of cases, according to court records.

• Prosecutors at trial argued that Gomez was the only person with a gun the night of the crime. However, the Medill students interviewed witnesses who said at least two gangs were present, and gang experts said it was highly unlikely that Gomez’s was the only gun at the scene. While Gomez has always admitted to firing into the sky, the bullet recovered from Diaz’s body did not match Gomez’s gun, and no witness identified him as the shooter who killed Diaz.

• Over the years, three judges have expressed strong reservations about Gomez’s conviction, including a federal judge who called it a “manifest injustice” that he remains incarcerated. A childhood friend of Gomez’s who drove the car from which Gomez said he shot into the sky was originally convicted as an accomplice to first-degree murder. The judge in the driver’s case, however, determined that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict Gomez of murder, so the charges against the driver were reduced and the driver was promptly released. 

The student reporters -- Katie Chen, Kim Dahan, Natalie Krebs, Olivia LaVecchia, Lorraine Ma, Fenit Nirappil and Lianna Trubowitz -- also are the subjects of a video, “The Story Behind the Story,” posted on the Medill Innocence Project’s website. The multimedia piece by Trubowitz and Medill Innocence Project staffer Alison Flowers provides an inside look as students testfire guns, examine the crime scene and visit Gomez in prison as part of their investigation.

The students’ in-depth investigative article is part of the Medill Innocence Project’s new direction since Professor Klein became its director last spring. Newly hired Medill Innocence Project research associate Flowers and Sergio Serritella, a licensed private detective who assists the investigative journalism class, also contributed to the students’ investigation.

For more information, contact Medill Professor Alec Klein, director of the Medill Innocence Project, at (847) 467-4476 or by email at alec-klein@northwestern.edu.
Topics: People, University News