Ronnie Carrasquillo, a longtime client of PLO, was recently released after serving 47 years in prison. 65 year old Ronnie emerged from prison having been an inspirational mentor and peace-maker to so many both inside and outside the prison walls since his incarceration when he was 18 years of age. Over the years he had garnered wide-spread support, from his family, religious and Puerto Rican communities, elected and appointed officials and even the former prosecutor in his underlying case. An instructor in the prison described Ronnie, his student, as sincere and honest with an excellent attitude, having helped turn many other people’s lives around. The courtroom was packed with his supporters when Judge Maldonado, having been ordered by the appellate court to conduct a new sentencing hearing, declared his time had been served and he was rehabilitated. All who know Ronnie are eager to see the positive contributions Ronnie will continue to make in his community.
In 1976, 18 year old Ronnie was living in Humboldt Park, a community saturated with racially based violence. His mother had died three years before and he and his brother were left largely to fend for themselves amidst the chaos of their lives. He himself had been shot and the victim of multiple crimes. One night after drinking at a party, a fight broke out between Puerto Rican and white gangs in the street below and as the party-goers streamed out, Ronnie was handed a gun and he fired it several times attempting to fire over the crowd to disperse the fight. Shots ended up high up in the first and second floors of an abandoned building but one shot struck an off duty police officer, dressed in jeans and a leather jacket, who was in the midst of the crowd trying to break-up the melee, killing him. As the prosecutor attested Ronnie always took responsibility for firing the gun, was saddened and expressed his remorse from the beginning. Despite his lack of a criminal record, Judge Frank Wilson sentenced Ronnie to 200-600 years in prison.
Approximately 31 years ago PLO partner Michael Deutsch received a call from Ronnie Carrasquillo’s brother and later learned that Ronnie had been involved with the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, a community organization that the office had long supported in the Humboldt Park neighborhood. Thus began Michael’s and the PLO’s decades long commitment and support of Ronnie. Ronnie’s story was compelling as was the involvement of Judge Wilson who was implicated in a judicial corruption scandal in which he was was accused of taking a bribe to acquit a mob hit man several months before giving the draconian sentence to 18-year-old Ronnie. Judge Wilson later killed himself as an indictment of him appeared imminent.
Michael enlisted his PLO partner John Stainthorp who was also dealing with an appeal of a man wrongly sentenced by a corrupt judge. Thus began Michael’s lead advocacy through multiple criminal appeals, successive post conviction hearings, chancery proceedings and multiple parole hearings. Over the course of the next 30 years Michael zealously represented Ronnie. Michael repeatedly represented Ronnie in parole hearings only to see the hearing room packed with police officers, intimidating parole board members and leading a former chair of the board to conclude that Ronnie would never be granted parole. At times when he deemed it advantageous to Ronnie’s case he recruited, encouraged and supported other attorneys to take up aspects of the fight to free Ronnie. Ronnie’s case became one of the examples of a deteriorating parole board that now is in disarray and stacked against those who believe in rehabilitation and second chances.
After a successful appeal, that instead of concluding the outrageous sentence received was the result of a corrupt judge, found that the requisite cause and prejudice was established and granted leave to file a successive post conviction petition on behalf of Ronnie. The appellate court found prejudice in that Ronnie, without any prior criminal record who was 18 at the time of the crime, had already served a de facto life sentence and despite his excellent prison record and strong family and community support had been turned down for parole 30 times in almost as many years. Former PLO associate Shubra Ohri and Michael tried a postconviction hearing in front of Judge Maldonado and then successfully appealed the judge’s denial of relief. PLO partner Brad Thomson, a law student at the time, conducted legal investigation into aspects of the case and testified at the hearing.
In 2020, Michael procured a forensic evaluation from a forensic clinical psychologist who provided an expert report regarding the still developing brain of an 18 year old emerging adult, concluding that many of the factors recognized by the US Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama were applicable to Ronnie and the likelihood of his rehabilitation based on his stellar prison record. At the same time, Michael enlisted PLO partner Jani Hoft along with Attorney Melinda Power to assist with a concurrent attack in Chancery Court of Cook County of the unconstitutionality of Ronnie’s repeated mistreatment by the parole board. Michael, Jani and Melinda also conducted another postconviction hearing in front of Judge Maldonado only to have the judge again deny Ronnie any relief concluding that despite the evidence to the contrary that Ronnie had the continued opportunity for parole.
In the meantime, Illinois Prison Project attorney Jennifer Soble had taken up efforts to secure parole as well as clemency for Ronnie, tirelessly fighting on his behalf. Former PLO partner Chick Hoffman, semi-retired senior attorney with the Office of the State Appellate Defender took up Ronnie’s appeal, successively arguing the case and ultimately resulting in a reversal of Judge Maldonado’s denial of Ronnie’s postconviction petition, finally vacating the 200-600 year sentence and ordering a new sentencing hearing be conducted. Ronnie’s case again came before Judge Maldonado and despite vicious and unfounded vitriol against Ronnie on social media by the Chicago Chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, the Office of the State’s Attorney raised no objection and Judge Maldonado sentenced Ronnie to time served and released him to his supportive family and community. Michael, Chick and Jennifer Soble were there to finally see Ronnie set free. All of us at the PLO celebrate this long awaited result and wish Ronnie and his family the very best for the future.