CHICAGO (CBS) — Two men who were convicted of arson and murder as teenagers have been released from prison after 35 years.
The men – Arthur Almendarez and John Galvan – had their prison sentences overturned by a panel of the Illinois Court of Appeals. They were released from the Cook County Jail on Thursday evening.
A family member shouted, “He’s a free man.
“I try not to let anger poison my soul,” Almendarez said as he hugged his family. “I fought all this time. I was so angry.”
Almendarez said his late mother is not there to see him as a free man.
No, after 35 years behind bars, he says he doesn’t know how to be free.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I grew up in prison. I was 20 when I was locked up. All I know how to do is be a convict. Now I have to learn to be a man in the world and in society .”
It was an emotional night as families and supporters of the men prepared to welcome them home.
Consider this – at the time they were arrested, Galvan was just 18 and Almendarez 19.
Chicago police arrested the men for arson in the early morning hours of September 21, 1986. An apartment building at 2603 W. 24th Pl. in the Petit Village neighborhood went up in smoke. Two young men – Guadalupe and Julio Martinez, who lived in the upstairs apartment with their family – were both killed.
Almendarez and Galvan were arrested nine months later, according to the appeal decision. They were tried, found guilty and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Both have always claimed their innocence and claimed that two Chicago police detectives had extracted a confession from them. After countless appeals and 35 years later, the appeals court overturned the sentence, resulting in their release.
Their family members were shocked to receive the call.
“We’ve been waiting for this day for 35 years,” said Almendarez’s sister, Laura Guevara. “It’s late.”
“I can’t breathe until he comes out – I can’t,” Almendarez’s sister Lydia Villalobos said.
“It’s amazing — I mean, it was like a living nightmare, and I can’t believe it’s over,” Galvan’s mother Linda Flores said. She added that the first thing she wanted to do with her son was “give him a hug. I want him to take it easy. So much in this world has changed in 35 years.”
Family members gathered outside the Cook County Jail at 5 p.m. Thursday. They were determined to wait to see Almendarez and Galvan come out.
It’s worth pointing out that Almendarez’s and Galvan’s sentences were only quashed — they weren’t exonerated. In about two weeks, they will return to court, at which time it will be determined whether the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office is dropping the case altogether or preparing to try it again from the start.