By Sara Grossbarth, Zoe Jennings, Rowena Li, Fenit Nirappil and Nicola Paracchini
Medill Innocence Project
Published: March 14, 2012
Manuela Avalos’ photo album is filled with empty pages. She opens its turquoise cover and stares at her 23-year-old self.
In the picture, she wears a white lace-trimmed dress, and she is surrounded by her family, beside a towering cake. Arms linked with the man at her side, she prepares to step forward toward the altar.
“When you get married, you think it’s forever,” Manuela, now 41 years old, says in Spanish. “You make all these plans.”
Ivette Ginjauma doesn’t have any photos of her wedding, but she remembers wearing a sweater dress and leggings while her groom turned up in a uniform, a blue button-down shirt and khakis. There was no cake. A prison chaplain officiated the ceremony and a corrections officer served as their witness. Ivette’s then 10-year-old son, Jaylen, was the only guest.
“Every day feels like a year,” Ivette says. “Every day I wake up and see all the things I do by myself and without him by my side.”
The two women have never met, but their husbands crossed paths nearly 15 years ago. It was another shooting on the Northwest Side of Chicago. To most anyone else, the incident meant little more than a brief on a police blotter: a reckless teenager with a gun sentenced to prison, an innocent bystander claimed by inner-city violence. But the story of these two women—overlooked collateral damage from a violent crime—is a tragedy that transcends statistics.
Manuela lost a husband and today feels no connection to the man held responsible; Ivette gained a husband by falling in love with a man despite his murder conviction.
It was June 13, 1997, the night the Chicago Bulls won their fifth NBA championship. At the intersection of Cicero and Diversey avenues, a crowd took to the street as part of a citywide celebration. At the same corner, Manuela’s husband, Concepcion Diaz, waited for a bus ride home after a long day at work.
Farther up on Cicero, 17-year-old Ariel Gomez cruised down the street in a red 1995 Nissan Pathfinder SUV with four friends. About 30 minutes before midnight, a bullet tore through Concepcion’s back and chest. He was pronounced dead from multiple gunshot wounds at 12:22 a.m., according to medical records. He was 32.
Police quickly arrested Ariel and his friends. Ariel said he fired his gun, not toward the crowd of revelers, as he was accused, but only once into the sky to ward off an angry mob.
Today, Manuela is indifferent to Ariel’s claims of innocence: “If he’s innocent, or not innocent, God will forgive him. It doesn’t matter to me.”