Chapter 3: Jacques Rivera's fight for freedom

October 21, 2013

Alison Flowers

WBEZ/Andrew Gill
Jacques Rivera.

ORLANDO LOPEZ GOT THE CHANCE to identify Jacques in court a second time, more than two decades after he first pointed to him as a child witness. This time Jacques was seeking a new trial, and this time Orlando was going to clear him.

He had flown in from Cleveland the day before the hearing, missing work where he earned an honest living at a high-rise window cleaning company. A 35-year-old married father of four, Orlando decided to leave his gang ties behind in Chicago, moving away from the city in the mid-90s.

On June 23, 2011, he found himself back on the stand, back in the city.

“As you sit here today under oath, is it your testimony that you consciously lied when you identified Jacques Rivera as the shooter of Felix Valentin?”

Follow the stories of three Illinois exonerees through their wrongful convictions, releases and struggles to put their lives back together as free men.

“Yes,” Orlando answered.

“Mr. Lopez, do you see the man at counsel table who is wearing the yellow jumpsuit?”

“Yes.”

“And do you know who that is?”

“Yes.”

“Is that Jacques Rivera?”

“Yes.”

Temples grayed, hair thinned, Jacques was 21 years in to his 80-year sentence at Stateville Correctional Center for murder. Over the years, he had worked on his own case from prison, writing letters for help and filing his own post-conviction appeal. It was quickly denied a month later. Four years later, he tried for a federal appeal. It was denied the following year. He petitioned the court again in 2000. It was dismissed.

Then his case landed on attorney Jane Raley’s desk – a Northwestern University law professor and public defender heavyweight with about a dozen exonerations, a human rights award and some death sentence commutations under her belt.

ABOUT A DECADE before finding Orlando’s recantation, before Jacques’ hearing, Jane sat on a Metra commuter train, headed home to Highland Park from the city. Settling in for the more than 45-minute haul, she started reading a case file, a thin one she could get through in one sitting.

Jacques’ file landed on her desk during an inquiry into the “Guevara” cases, the gang crimes detective tied to several alleged manipulated and coerced witnesses. The same detective had testified that Jacques had a gold-streaked ponytail – matching the shooter Orlando had witnessed murdering his family friend. Lineup photos show Jacques without a ponytail, without gold streaks.

Jane also thought it was unusual that no police officer had testified for the state on direct examination.

The Metra train stopped. With the only witness being the kid, that was the place to start.

TWO WOMEN KNOCKED. It was 4:30 in the afternoon in on the last day of February in 2010. Cynthia Estes, a veteran private investigator, and Jennifer Linzer, the assistant director of Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, had driven more than five hours to try their luck at Orlando’s front door in Cleveland.

After many failed attempts to track down the right “Orlando Lopez” near Chicago, Jane’s team finally got a lead through Estes that Orlando might be in Ohio.

One of his sons answered the door. He told Estes and Linzer his dad was out shopping. They left a card, set to return at 6 p.m.

Orlando came home and saw the card.

“Right there knew right away, it was my past catching up,” he later testified.

Ten minutes shy of the hour, the women returned and saw Orlando. He invited them in. They walked into his living room and explained who they were. He asked them to go for a drive.

Linzer drove, Orlando sat in the front and Estes took the back seat. He suggested they go to Starbucks.

Orlando mumbled something.

Estes couldn’t hear him and asked him to repeat himself.

“Redemption,” he said. “This is all about redemption.”

He looked up at Estes. Tears came down his face, and he began to sob.

Orlando told them the truth before they made it to the coffee shop.

AT STARBUCKS, they sat and talked for almost two hours, and he asked for a pen and paper so he could write to Jacques.

Less than four months later, a State of Ohio notary watched as Orlando signed his affidavit for Jacques’ new petition. Jacques had exhausted his post-conviction appeals, so Jane had to argue that another petition was warranted because it introduced new evidence that would likely change the result on retrial

And there were more affidavits, more evidence, including from two men who had stood in line with Jacques at the first live lineup in 1988, which was never raised at Jacques’ trial.

An affidavit also came from a former law student who interviewed Chicago Police Detective Craig Letrich, who said another lineup may have occurred. In the student’s affidavit, Letrich also confirmed he spoke to Felix from his hospital bed before he died and that Felix identified two Imperial Gangsters as the perpetrators. 

But the first affidavit, the evidence on which the case had always hinged, was Orlando’s. Sentence by sentence, he tried to undo the lie that had haunted him for almost his entire life.

“At some point I made the decision that it was just easier to stick with my original identification of Jacques Rivera as the shooter,” Orlando wrote. “I then proceeded to identify Jacques Rivera in the second lineup knowing that he was not the killer.”

Orlando explained that the murder victim, Felix, was the brother of his sister’s boyfriend, Israel. Israel and Orlando’s sister later had three children together before Israel himself was the victim of a fatal shooting. Orlando had looked to him as a brother.

“I am coming forward with the truth now because I feel terrible about identifying Jacques Rivera as the shooter when in fact he was not the shooter,” Orlando wrote. “I have been waiting for years for someone to find me so I could tell the truth. I want to set the record straight. My coming forward is all about redemption.”

>LIKE ORLANDO, Jacques, a former Latin King, had also abandoned the gang life, finding God in prison. Jacques attended Bible study at Stateville Correctional Center for years and met with program leader Howard Stob about once a week.

“I consider him to be a solid Christian man of great integrity,” Stob wrote in an affidavit.

Jacques rarely saw his kids in prison, having divorced from their mother a few years into his sentence. Jacques’ mother would take the kids to visit him about twice a year, but sometimes several years would pass him by without seeing their faces.

So his faith sustained him.

“That’s my number one man,” Jacques says. “If wasn’t by for the grace of God, I wouldn’t be here today.”

He even rejected a potential plea deal, believing the truth would prevail. Jane had been reticent to bring it to him because she didn’t want him to think his appeal wasn’t strong enough. On top of that, there was no firm offer.

“It was strange,” Jane notes.  “Rather, the State approached me and said that they were interested in resolving the matter but wanted me to make the proposal.”

She thought the vague offer was offensive, and so did Jacques, given Orlando’s recantation and other new evidence supporting his innocence. They passed.

BEFORE COOK COUNTY JUDGE NEERA WALSH granted Jacques a new trial, Jacques was told “the writing was on the wall” – that he would likely be denied.

“I don’t know what writing you’re seeing on the wall, but I don’t see no writing on the wall,” Jacques said.

Jacques was due for a visit from Jane, and as he waited, he paced back and forth in the bull pen, catching a glimpse of the wall in front of him. There was something scribbled in graffiti.

“Oh, how ironic,” he thought. “The writing really is on the wall.”

Jacques went back to look at what it said. He stopped pacing.

It read: “SOON.”

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