Civil rights case has tiny payout but big implications for Chicago police

May 2, 2014

(WBEZ/Robert Wildeboer)
Nathson Fields spent 18 years in prison but won only $80,000 in civil trial

When he got back home from court Thursday, Nathson Fields sat at his dining room table, with his elbow on the glass tabletop and his forehead resting on his hand, trying to figure out what went wrong, why the jury in his civil suit awarded him only $80,000 dollars after he spent 18 years in prison.

“I told them about how death row was,” said Fields, looking both glum and perplexed. “And I told them how I watched men who I became to know, walk to their execution, and walk past my cell, and being locked in a cell twenty-three hours a day for twelve years and say it’s only worth 80 thousand dollars, to me that is a travesty.”

The bribe-taking judge

In 1984, two men were gunned down in a housing project at 706 East 39th Street on Chicago’s South Side. Fields was charged in the double murder along with Earl Hawkins. Hawkins paid the judge in the case $10, 000 to find them not-guilty. The judge took the money but then feared, rightly, that the FBI was watching him, so he gave the bribe back and found Fields and Hawkins guilty and sent them to death row.

In 1993 Judge Thomas Maloney was found guilty of taking bribes in murder cases, including in the Fields/Hawkins case. Fields won a retrial, and in 2009 he was found not guilty.

That paved the way for a civil lawsuit that has played out in a federal courtroom over the last three weeks-- in which Fields claimed Chicago cops framed him for a murder he didn’t commit. But that 2009 retrial where he was found not guilty, that meant prosecutors couldn’t prove Fields guilty beyond a reasonable doubt 25 years after the murder. It wasn’t a finding of innocence, and the jury in the civil trial this last couple weeks didn’t seem to think Fields was innocent.

City says police got the right guy

Lawyers for the City of Chicago argued that cops didn’t frame Fields because he was actually one of the shooters.

Len Goodman represents Fields.

“During the trial they threw a lot of mud at our client and a lot of it stuck,” said Fields’ attorney Len Goodman after the jury gave his client just $80,000.

Lawyers for the city told jurors about Fields’ lengthy criminal history. He did time for a 1971 murder where he was part of a fight in which a friend of his killed a rival gang member. City attorneys talked about Fields’ role in the El Rukns, a notorious street gang, and they asked Fields on the stand about the time he was arrested in a car in which police also found a gun, a Tec-9.

There was also testimony from a witness to the 1984 double murder who pointed at Fields and said he was the shooter, and an El Rukn enforcer who has admitted participating in a score of murders said he committed that shooting with Fields.

“Basically what their defense was, well, he’s a bad guy, he’s a gang member, he’s an El Rukn, he mighta done it anyway, he probably did something else,” said Goodman. “So don’t give him any compensation and that was basically their tactic and it was obviously somewhat effective but not completely.”

The jury did find that Chicago police sergeant David O’Callaghan violated Fields’ due process rights. It’s unclear exactly what the jury was relying on to make that decision, but as one possible example, a witness to the double homicide in 1984 said he told police that he didn’t see the shooters but police pushed him to identify Nathson Fields anyway.

Fields is potentially start of a deluge of street-file-related cases

Beyond specific violations by one officer, the Fields’ case shed light on something that extends to potentially thousands of cases. Attorneys proved that Chicago police continued to maintain so-called street files long after a department special order prohibited the practice in 1983.

Jon Loevy is a civil rights attorney who often sues over police misconduct and is currently suing the department over the issue of street files.

“You know the way it played out, if you’re accused of a murder, say, they give you the official file, and I’ve done a lot of this work so I’ve seen a lot of these files and in the official file are all the evidence, and witnesses and documents that point at you, the stuff that makes you look guilty,” said Loevy. “But what’s not in the file is the stuff that points at other suspects, or stuff that might help your defense.”

The street file contains all the notes made by detectives as they investigate murders. All those notes are supposed to be included in the main investigative file that goes to prosecutors and defense attorneys, but Fields’ case shows that those notes aren’t always turned over. Some of the material in Fields’ street file points to other suspects and the file wasn’t handed over until 2011, after Fields had been tried twice. By law, his attorneys in his first trial for the double murder should have had the exculpatory information that pointed to other suspects.

“Well you know the police officers are not the judge and they’re not the jury and their job is to gather the facts and turn the facts over to the state’s attorney who gives them to the criminal defense attorney,” said Loevy. “It is a problem if the police overstep their role and make their own decision about what the criminal defendants should get because the rule is they’re supposed to get everything.”

Police testify they’ve done little to nothing to investigate further

In Fields’ civil trial several Chicago police commanders and detectives testified that they didn’t know why Fields’ street file wasn’t turned over for two and a half decades. And they didn’t know how it was found, or who found it or when. But Fields’ file was just one in a large filing cabinet filled with hundreds of other files dating back to 1944. And that filing cabinet was just one of 20 in the basement of the police department’s area central headquarters.

“There is sitting in the police basement hundreds if not thousands of files that criminal defendants accused of crimes have never seen and Fields’ file was one among those hundreds if not thousands of files, and in Fields’ file when it finally surfaced was a bunch of exculpatory information. It remains to be determined whether the other files in those street file cabinets also contain exculpatory information. Some of them presumably don’t but some of them presumably do and in at least some of those cases men are innocent that are in prison for crime they didn’t commit and the evidence that could help them show their innocence is in those file cabinets,” said Loevy.

In one lawsuit against the city Loevy is asking a judge to let him go through the files to see what’s there.

The police don’t seem terribly curious about what’s in the cabinets. On the stand in the Fields trial several current police department personnel testified that they hadn’t done any investigating as to what might be in the other files next to Fields’ long-lost street file.

Thursday I called police department spokesman Adam Collins to ask what was happening with the files and was anyone reviewing them?

Despite the high profile nature of the Fields case and the street file issue, Collins could not provide any information.