Groundbreaking Stories from Medill Innocence Project
Victim’s wife speaks, an elusive eyewitness raises doubts about innocence
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University journalism students supported by the Medill Innocence Project have published two groundbreaking stories: a profile of the murder victim’s wife and another based on interviews with a key eyewitness who said his childhood friend, Ariel Gomez, is guilty of the murder for which he was convicted. Students have been investigating this 1997 Chicago murder case for six months under Medill Professor Alec Klein, director of the Medill Innocence Project.
During the past several months, students tracked down murder victim Concepcion Diaz’s wife, Manuela Avalos, overcoming the difficulty of finding someone who went by a different first and last name in court documents. During an interview with students, Avalos said she did not remember writing a victim impact statement where she asked the judge to sentence Gomez to the maximum penalty. In addition to Avalos’ story, students also profiled Gomez’s wife, Ivette Ginjauma, who married Gomez while he was in prison.
Students also interviewed an elusive co-defendant in the case, Paul Yalda, who was acquitted in 1998. He was the only one of the five boys charged with Diaz’s murder who students had not found. As they searched for Yalda, members of his family and friends said he no longer lived in Arizona where records indicated he had once lived. But, under Professor Klein’s supervision, four students traveled to Maricopa County, Ariz., on the hunch that he might still be there. During their three-day stay, Yalda eluded the students. The students persisted and found Yalda, who made startling statements about the crime, claiming Gomez committed the murder and switched the guns, resulting in the negative ballistics test. In a recent prison interview, Gomez denied Yalda’s allegations.
Students also interviewed various authorities, including crime scene reconstruction experts, who reexamined Gomez’s case. The majority of these experts questioned his conviction.
Two investigative feature stories appear Wednesday on the Medill Innocence Project website at www.medillinnocenceproject.org. As part of a multimedia package, the students have produced a behind-the-scenes video, photo gallery and an interactive graphic that presents experts’ comments and features a diagrammed map that further illuminates what may have happened the night of the crime.
The work of the 10 Medill undergraduates during the just-ended 10-week academic term is a continuation of the investigation that students began in the fall and wrote about in an extensive article published in December. Gomez is accused of a fatal drive-by shooting that took place June 13, 1997, the night the Chicago Bulls clinched their fifth championship. The victim, Diaz, was 32; Gomez was 17. No witness identified Gomez as the shooter; the ballistics did not match, and three witnesses told Medill students that police had tried to convince them that Gomez was Diaz’s killer.
The March 14 publication is the culmination of an investigative journalism class taught by Klein, a best-selling author and former Washington Post award-winning investigative reporter. Also contributing to the students’ investigation were Medill Innocence Project research associate Alison Flowers and Suyeon “Summer” Son, a University of Maryland journalism student who was awarded a Medill Innocence Project fellowship.