Attorneys allege broad misconduct in investigation of off-duty officer’s killing

William DeShazer/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Authorities investigating the 2011 slaying of a Chicago police officer concealed reams of evidence in an effort to pin the case on the three men who were ultimately charged, attorneys for one of the men allege in an extensive new court filing.

In a nearly 140-page request for a new trial, attorneys for Alexander Villa accuse police and Cook County prosecutors of an array of abuses and cover-ups. Among the assertions: Police concealed their investigation of alternate suspects, and did not document interviews with people who disputed Villa’s involvement.

Prosecutors did not turn over a 2012 analysis showing that the alleged getaway driver’s phone was far from the scene at the time of the murder, although an analysis performed a decade later contradicted that point. And police allegedly deleted a slew of messages from a report about the cellphone of the woman Villa was texting at the time of the shooting — then buried the report altogether.

Meanwhile, attorneys say they have uncovered further evidence casting doubt on the men’s guilt. A PlayStation purportedly recorded co-defendant Tyrone Clay’s voice as he was playing a video game at the exact time of the murder, though efforts to recover that recording have so far been unsuccessful.

The heart of the issue, Villa’s attorneys allege, is that after co-defendant Edgardo Colon spoke to police — a confession that they allege was false — police honed in on him, Villa and Clay to the exclusion of all others. They “dropped viable investigative leads, hid exculpatory evidence that directly contradicted Colon’s statement, and let the true killers of Officer (Clifton) Lewis go uncharged,” the filing states.

Prosecutors are expected to file a written response to Villa’s assertions at the end of the month, according to court records. But in a filing in Clay’s case last month, they flatly denied hiding evidence related to the 2012 cellphone map, saying the analysis itself was inadmissible and that the underlying records were turned over to Clay’s defense back in 2013. And it is “disingenuous at best” to say that the map proves anyone’s innocence, they assert, since a new examination performed this year indicates that the 2012 analysis stated the wrong times for Colon’s phone.

Villa’s attorneys, however, note that even the new analysis shows that the defendants’ cellphones were not near each other the day of the shooting. Even if the 2012 map is flawed, the failure to turn it over before Villa’s trial is a constitutional violation, they said, and prosecutors have lost some of the underlying cellphone information, they say, making it impossible to confirm which analysis is correct.

The matter dates back nearly 11 years, when off-duty Chicago police Officer Clifton Lewis was working his second job as a security guard at a West Side convenience store. Two masked men burst into the M&M Quick Foods in the 1200 block of North Austin Boulevard in December 2011 and fatally shot Lewis, who took cover behind the counter and returned fire. The officer, described as a “gentle giant,” had just gotten engaged a few days before he was killed.

Three men were ultimately charged with Lewis’ murder. Villa and Clay were the two shooters, prosecutors allege. Colon was charged with being the getaway driver.

Since then, the cases have unspooled in an extraordinarily complicated way. Colon went to trial in 2017 and was found guilty; however, an appellate court threw out the conviction three years later, saying his constitutional rights were violated when police continued questioning him after he indicated he wanted a lawyer. Colon is now out on bond awaiting a second trial, during which prosecutors will not be able to use his statement to police.

Clay, meanwhile, has been in jail for more than a decade without seeing trial. Attorneys spent years wrangling over whether his videotaped statements could be shown to jurors. His attorneys argued that Clay’s “limited intelligence and verbal comprehension” made him unable to competently waive his Miranda rights. Cook County Judge Erica Reddick ultimately agreed and threw out the statements.

Prosecutors appealed that decision; it took the state appellate court a year and a half to render its order saying Reddick was correct and the confession should not go before a jury.

Meanwhile, Villa was convicted in a late-night verdict in 2019. Three years later, he has yet to be sentenced, largely because his new attorneys unearthed several complex matters in their examination of the evidence.

Among them was the 2012 FBI analysis mapping the location of the suspects’ cellphones, which was not in the investigative file. Villa’s attorneys subpoenaed that directly, and the map showed Colon’s phone was far away from the M&M Quick Mart at the exact time of the shooting.

It also showed that police were investigating another man in connection with Lewis’ shooting, Villa’s attorneys said, a man who was also suspected of robbing the same store a few weeks before Lewis’ slaying.

Police asked the FBI to map the location of that man’s cellphone the day Lewis was killed; they also gave polygraphs to him and another apparent suspect asking about Lewis’ killing. But police “scrubbed” any mention of those men in relation to the Lewis investigation, Villa’s attorneys allege — except for evidence of the polygraph. On questions regarding the Lewis slaying, one man failed the test and the other’s answers were “inconclusive.”

In addition, Villa’s attorneys note, prosecutors and defense attorneys learned only this year that police had examined the cellphone of Villa’s sometime girlfriend, who according to Villa’s phone records was texting with him around the time of the shooting.

Villa’s former attorney said in closing arguments that he could not have been the shooter, since surveillance footage shows the gunmen walking toward the convenience store at roughly the same time Villa was texting his girlfriend. But the substance of those texts was not available from Villa’s records, and prosecutors argued that he could have easily sent a short text before walking into view of the cameras.

In an event recalling the “street file” scandals of years past, the report of the phone’s “extraction” was found just this year in a box or a drawer at the Area 5 police station, though it apparently was never put in the formal file.

The unearthed report on the girlfriend’s phone does show the content of her texts, but it does not show any texts or calls between her and Villa in the days leading up to and after the shooting. The only logical conclusion is that police deleted those texts from the report altogether, Villa’s attorneys argue.

Meanwhile, attorneys for Clay have been in protracted discussions regarding the PlayStation 3. When first interviewed by police, Clay consistently said that at the time of the shooting, he was playing video games; police took video of their analysis of the PlayStation, in which they allegedly clicked on every option except the section that would show time and duration of his time on the game, according to Villa’s attorneys.

By the time that came to light this year, the console was so old it was practically inoperable and could not be fixed, prosecutors said, citing information from their forensics experts. Clay’s attorneys then took custody of the machine, and got it fixed at a Northwest Side repair shop.

At a pretrial court hearing for Clay on Monday, Judge Reddick said she would require a Sony representative to attend the next court hearing in an effort to get the underlying PlayStation data and potentially confirm what the technician saw.

mcrepeau@chicagotribune.com