Cousins who served longest wrongful conviction sentence in state history exonerated
A judge vacated the convictions of James Soto, 62, and David Ayala, 60, who were serving life sentences in the 1981 shooting deaths of a Marine and a teen girl in McKinley Park. They were both released Thursday night.
Two cousins imprisoned four decades for a double slaying in McKinley Park were exonerated Thursday in what is the longest-served wrongful conviction in state history.
Family packed the fourth-floor Cook County courtroom as a judge vacated the convictions of James Soto, 62, and David Ayala, 60.
“Forty-two years. At long last, justice,” Soto’s sister, Pilar More, said after the hearing.
On Thursday evening, the cousins walked out of prison to freedom.
Judge Timothy J. Joyce had denied the men’s petitions for a new trial in 2015, but he was forced to re-examine them eight years later following an appellate court ruling. Prosecutors in Thursday’s hearing said they no longer opposed the men’s request to vacate their convictions.
The pair were serving life sentences for the Aug. 16, 1981, killings of Julie Limas, 16, and Hector Valeriano, 18, a U.S. Marine who was home on leave.
At the time, Soto was 20 and Ayala 18 when authorities said they were responsible for a drive-by into a crowd at a softball game in Piotrowski Park at 31st Street and Keeler Avenue. Soto was tried as the shooter. Ayala, who prosecutors said was the leader of the Two Six gang with a mansion in suburban Westchester, was accused of ordering the attack.
Both were convicted and given life sentences. But they maintained their innocence as advocates tore apart the state’s case.
The pair were convicted almost solely on witness testimony that was later retracted, their lawyers said.
Lawyers for the pair claimed that three key witnesses gave police descriptions that pointed to other suspects. Police arrested a dozen people and allegedly coerced statements that implicated Soto and Ayala, the lawyers said.
The only trial witness who implicated both men was Wally “Gator” Cruz, who admitted to being the driver of the car carrying the shooters, according to the appellate ruling. Cruz was initially charged with murder, but he made a deal with the state in which he would be sentenced to five years. Other witnesses later said that Cruz’s testimony was false.
With no physical evidence tying Soto and Ayala to the crime, they both petitioned to reverse their convictions in 2015.
Their lawyers argued on Thursday that the convictions should be overturned because their assistant public defender had also represented one of the state’s witnesses, which they said was a conflict. The judge agreed.
Despite the technical argument, the lawyers maintained they could have proven the men innocent in a new trial.
The men will seek certificates of innocence, said Lauren Myerscough-Mueller, a lawyer with the Exoneration Project.
“These are not bitter men,” she said. “These are men that are grateful to come home and be with their family, and we’re proud of them.”
Soto and Ayala are the longest wrongfully incarcerated people in state history, according to the University of Michigan’s National Registry of Exonerations. Only Jackie Wilson, who served 35 years before he was exonerated in 2020, served as much time in Illinois, according to the registry.
Soto stayed busy in prison, improving himself. He earned a bachelor’s degree last month from Northwestern University’s Prison Education Program. He’s taken the law school admissions exam and plans to get a law degree, his lawyers said. Friends at the hearing said he’s gotten job offers from law firms.
Ayala spent 15 years of his sentence in isolation at Illinois’ Tamms Correctional Center, which closed in 2013, his lawyers said.
Welcome home, James!— Northwestern Prison Education Program (NPEP) (@NUPrisonEd) December 15, 2023
Earlier today, a judge vacated the conviction of NPEP Graduate James Soto, who was released after 42 years. Soto and his cousin, David Ayala, are the longest wrongfully incarcerated people in state history: https://t.co/aMvGdPgNav