Exoneree Diaries: 20 years after prison, a $200,000 apology

June 17, 2014

By: Alison Flowers

WBEZ/Andrew Gill
Jacques Rivera

“Who can I trust with my money? I want it to not only work for me. I want it to work for my family.”

IN JUNE 2013 Jacques hadn’t seen a dime of compensation from the state after earning his certificate of innocence nine months earlier. 

“That was a year that I had to struggle,” Jacques says. “They made my life a little bit more harder.”

His civil lawsuit was already a year underway, and yet a long way from resolution. With the help of high-powered attorneys, he was suing a group of Chicago police officers, including retired detective Reynaldo Guevara, who had been at the center of the murder investigation that resulted in Jacques’ wrongful conviction. Together, Jacques and his lawyers stood to earn millions of dollars if they won.

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

In June 2012, Jacques followed the news as Guevara found himself in court for a hearing in a different case where two men, Armando Serrano and Jose Montanez, were seeking new trials after waiting 20 years to prove their innocence. A jailhouse snitch and the widow of the murder victim had recanted in the case, accusing Guevara of inducing them to testify against the men, misconduct that dozens of other cases alleged about the notorious detective.

The defendants hadn’t seen Guevara since their 1994 trials, and now he appeared before them in what was expected to be a showdown between cop and snitch. Instead, it was anticlimax as Guevara refused to testify.

"Mr. Guevara, are you currently employed?" asked Jennifer Bonjean, Serrano's lawyer.

"I take the fifth amendment," Guevara replied.

"Did you ever coerce [witnesses] to provide false testimony against Mr. Serrano and Mr. Montanez?"

"I remain my Fifth Amendment rights."

"Did you give [a jailhouse snitch] money to offer false testimony?"

"I remain my Fifth Amendment rights."

When Jacques heard about what happened at the hearing, even from a distance, it triggered his fears about the man. He haunted him, showing up in his nightmares or worse, when he was awake.

“I've thought I've seen him,” Jacques says. “But I don't know how he looks.”

BY SUMMER’S END, the state of Illinois sent Jacques his compensation check, about $200,000. He had been waiting for the money for almost a year after proving his innocence in a hearing. The check came almost two years after being released – more than 20 years since he was wrongfully convicted.

While he waited, he worked, and he was grateful for a way to earn money and something to fill his days. Running deliveries at Northwestern University’s medical school, the labor took a toll on his body, by then a tired shell from the trauma and toil of incarceration.

In prison, Jacques had injured himself while working in the segregation unit. Food deliveries would arrive, and he was responsible for getting large shipments off the truck, which would tilt and tip. One day when the delivery started to fall, he was trying to hold it up when he felt something happen in his back, what turned into a bulging disk. Surgery in prison didn’t solve the problem.

On the outside, unloading and hauling boxes every day, the injury caught up with him. The medication for the pain made him antsier than usual. He would have to have physical therapy.

With his compensation check came many suggestions from family and friends about how he should spend or save the money. Someone set him up with an advisor. Jacques didn’t know where else to turn.

The money would only go so far, Jacques knew, and now that people knew he had it, he felt suspicious of others – even his dentist. When she told him he needed an onlay instead of a crown on his tooth, he grew concerned about the more expensive fix. When his dentist began speaking another language to her assistant about him, he couldn’t understand what they were saying, and his anxiety heightened.

“I mean it was just red flags,” Jacques says.  “It’s just little things like that throw me off.”

From the chair, he explained his situation to the dentist – that he was an exoneree and didn’t know whom to trust. The dentist calmed him down by explaining insurance would cover the pricey cosmetic onlay because it was a partial crown.

Others urged Jacques to use the money to do something nice for himself, like buy a fancy car. But with living with his mother in his sister’s home on the Northwest side, he wasn’t sure parking a flashy car on the street was a good idea.

He considered using the money to move out, though he didn’t mind living with his mother most of the time, except when he felt she was nagging him, pushing microwave dinners on him when he wasn’t hungry, causing him to lose his temper.

Jacques finally caved to the pressure to buy a new car. He settled on a new Kia Cadenza, which looked slick, but was modest in price. He still worried about not having a garage to protect the car.

With days of making the purchase, Jacques walked down from his mother’s apartment to his car, parked on the street. It was riddled with bullet holes.