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Four trials, 16 years later:   Chicago man acquitted of murder

Updated: July 17, 2013 7:04AM

It took an unprecedented four murder trials spread over 16 years for Cesar “Tony” Munoz to finally clear his name in the 1997 shooting death of his girlfriend.

Munoz spent nearly eight years in prison before being acquitted last week of murdering 21-year-old Magdaliz “Maggie” Rosaria in their Chicago apartment — a shooting he always contended was a suicide.

A day after being found not guilty, Munoz said in an interview he is trying to determine how to rebuild his life after an experience he still struggles to describe.

“There’s a part of you that’s been put on hold,” Munoz, now 37, said of his years fighting the murder charges. “Just knowing that my life is not on pause no more, it’s something big to think about. But I’m going to go through this storm just like I went through that storm.”

The verdict apparently marks the first time in Illinois history a defendant has been acquitted after four trials, said Kathleen Zellner, a prominent Chicago area attorney who often handles high-profile appeals and wrongful arrest or conviction cases.

His first trial in 2000 ended in a hung jury, but Munoz was convicted in two subsequent trials of gunning down Rosaria — the mother of his two young daughters — during what Cook County prosecutors said was a jealous argument.

Both convictions later were reversed on appeal.

Munoz was acquitted after a fourth trial that featured a dramatic shift in strategy, including having a judge instead of jury decide the case.

His attorneys also emphasized scientific evidence — including blood spatter patterns and gunshot residue testing — that undercut prosecutors’ claims Munoz murdered his girlfriend.

They also opted not to have Munoz testify. At his earlier trials he had denied killing Rosaria, telling jurors he heard a gunshot, then rushed into their bedroom to find her bleeding from a massive head wound.

Munoz, who had been free on bond heading into this trial, was optimistic he would be acquitted. “I thought it would come, yes. I dreamed about it,” Munoz said in a soft voice.

But when Judge Rosemary Higgins handed down the not guilty verdict late Wednesday, Munoz was so emotionally drained he had to check with his attorney to make sure he’d heard her ruling correctly.

“He said, ‘what happened?’ recounted Zellner. “I said, ‘you’re free. It’s over.’ ”

She stepped in to represent Munoz after his second conviction in 2007, then won a 2010 appeal tossing out that guilty verdict. An Illinois Appellate Court panel ruled improper testimony had been allowed from a Chicago police investigator and from another man with whom Rosaria had become romantically involved before her death.

Zellner took on the case after reviewing what she called “strong” forensic evidence that backed Munoz’s contention his long-time girlfriend shot herself with the long-barreled, .44-caliber revolver.

“His story never changed that she shot herself,” Zellner said.

Tests for gunshot residue on Munoz’s hands were inconclusive, but showed residue on Rosaria’s left hand.

Munoz’s blue shirt showed two large blood spots where he cradled her body after the shooting, but no other signs of blood indicating he had been close to her when the fatal shot was fired, a defense pathologist testified.

Cook County prosecutors couldn’t be reached for comment on the trial.

Munoz said he and Rosaria had a troubled, turbulent relationship, which included having two daughters together in the span of less than a year, even though neither worked regularly. Rosaria frequently had been depressed after the birth of their youngest daughter, who was barely 7-months old when Rosaria died, Munoz said.

He wants to begin gradually building a relationship with his daughters, now teenagers and being raised by Rosaria’s relatives, who remain bitter about her death. They couldn’t be reached for comment.

Munoz has had no contact with his youngest daughter, and exchanges only occasional texts with his older girl.

“It’s not like a father and daughter type relationship at all,” said Munoz, who lives in a north suburb. “I’d like to establish that, but I’m not trying to rush that.”

He’s also relieved he’ll be able to regularly see his 7-year-old son, whom he fathered during a brief marriage while free on bond after his first conviction was reversed. He recently taught the boy to ride his bike without training wheels and wants to spend more time with the youngster and the rest of his close-knit family, who paid for his lawyers and emotionally supported him throughout his legal odyssey.

Now working for his father’s construction business, Munoz also is considering offering his services to anti-violence groups in Chicago.

“I believe my future is bright,” he said, adding, “I’m just looking forward to making memories, making memories.”

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