Former Death Row inmate sues city of Chicago

Former El Rukn was swept up in a 1980s drug task force. He fears a new task force may lead history to repeat itself.

June 15, 2012

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(WBEZ/Natalie Moore)
Nathson Fields

Sometimes cities feel crime gets so bad that they need help, and they get it from federal law enforcement agencies. This year Chicago’s police department teamed up with the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Agency to reduce crime in the city’s most violent neighborhoods.

This is familiar territory.

Back in the 1980s, Chicago officials created a similar task force, but it was marred with instances of misconduct. The guy who got tangled up in this crime task force business — and has a warning about it —  is Nathson Fields.

One morning in June 1985, Fields woke up in his home in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood, and he drove to get his daily cup of coffee. He got a block away, when a Chicago police officer pulled him over and asked for ID.

Then, more officers popped up from undercover cars.

FIELDS: They pulled their guns out and told me don’t move. They cuffed me up and took me to the Chicago police station. And as I got out the car one of them told me, ‘We’ll see you in 40 years, Nate.’ And I really didn’t understand that.

And, Fields says he certainly didn’t understand why he was being accused of murder … in fact, two murders.

Fields got a bench trial the next year, in 1986. He and a co-defendant were convicted of the double murder. Fields spent nearly 18 years behind bars — eleven of them were on Illinois’ Death Row. Fields had a new trial in 2009, and he was acquitted. He now holds a certificate of innocence.

That’s the short version of Fields’ story, and it’s a story you may have heard before — one where police just get the wrong guy and and there’s a wrongful conviction.

But when I talk with Fields in his lawyer’s office, he says there’s more to all this. He figures he knows why he was a target back in the '80s.

FIELDS: Because I was an El Rukn. There was no other reason for them to be so cruel to me to put a double murder on me like that. I just can’t see no other reason.

Fields says on the day he was arrested, a sergeant shouted an unforgiving message.

FIELDS: It’s over with for the El Rukns! It’s over for the El Rukns! Do you hear me? It is over for the El Rukn!.

The El Rukns were a powerful black street gang in Chicago. Their heyday was in the 1980s, when they were led by the notorious Jeff Fort. The law enforcement decree was to destroy the El Rukns, and the Chicago police and the federal government teamed up to do it … by creating their special task force.

Fields maintains he was in the El Rukn hierarchy, but says he didn’t do anything illegal. He says he managed an apartment building for the gang and did some of the community work that El Rukns were also known for.

But back to Fields’ 1986 trial. Fields says he didn’t know the victims Talman Hickman and Jerome Smith, who were  members of a rival gang called the Black Gangster Goon Squad.

Again, the police flung around rhetoric about taking down the El Rukns, but Fields thought there’d be no way he would be convicted because there was flimsy proof, and there was no physical evidence at the murder scene. And Fields’ lawyer at the time never received something called a “street file” that contained crucial police notes on the case.

More on that later.

Anyway, Fields says things got absurd with a witness account.

FIELDS: They told an incredible story. They said that after the two victims were shot, they said the guys who shot them removed their ski masks and stood over the bodies for 15 to 20 seconds. And, mind you, the crime happened in broad daylight on a busy street like 39th Street.

Fields thought, how could a judge believe that? Why would someone wear a ski mask to commit murder and then rip it off?

But there was more.

Another witness implicated Fields, too.But that witness had a bad history with Fields, and it turned out the witness account was a lie, and the witness eventually recanted.

FIELDS: Our take was that it was a frame up.

But while all that was happening in court … other things were happening behind the scenes. Fields didn’t know that his codefendant’s lawyer paid Cook County Judge Thomas Maloney $10,000 to find the two men not guilty. Judge Maloney sensed the feds were onto him and he returned the money. Then, he rendered a guilty verdict against Fields and his co-defendant.

Maloney was right about the FBI.

In 1993, a federal jury convicted Judge Maloney of racketeering and extortion under a sweeping investigation called Operation Greylord.

But with all that — all the questions about the case, and all the corruption of the judge — Fields still remained on Illinois’ Death Row. The stress took a toll.

FIELDS: I started combing my hair one day and I had long hair. And as I combed it on one side and went to the other side and all of it started coming out, that’s when I knew. I said I gotta stop worrying. I don’t know how I wound up down here, but, man there’s got to be a reason. Somebody gotta know what happened.

In 1996 Fields was granted  a new trial, but he didn’t make bail until 2003, when Aaron Patterson, a Death Row exoneree, put up Fields’ bail money. Fields and Patterson had met in prison and made a pact: The first one out would pay bail for the other.

A judge acquitted Fields in 2009, almost 24 years after that day the cops stopped Fields during his morning drive for coffee. Fields is suing the city, Chicago police and Cook County in federal court for what Fields calls a frame-up. He wants $360 million, but he feels he’s not just working for himself.

FIELDS: I filed this lawsuit so nobody else would have to go through what I went through.

Go back to those “street files" mentioned earlier. 

Fields requested that batch of police evidence in 1985, but his lawyer didn’t receive them until this year. The documents suggest suppressed evidence, including witness interviews that contradict claims that Fields was at the murder scene.
  
The city of Chicago law department declined to comment on this story.

Fields says the current city and federal law enforcement task force alarms him. The task force of the 1980s led to mistrials because of prosecutorial misconduct.

FIELDS: You haven’t really solved the issue with your police and now you give them a special assignment to say like go for broke, do your thang. Aw, man, that’s pretty much how it happened with me.  You know what I’m saying? They mount these big posses up – that’s all they are – they mount them up and they go out. Who we looking for?

Fields says, after his 2009 acquittal, he wanted to see the ocean and mountains for the first time. He’s 58 years old now, and tours the country with Witness to Innocence, a national advocacy group of exonerated Death Row survivors.

Fields hasn’t taken that ocean-side vacation. But he travels for advocacy work, and he has gotten his glimpse of mountains.