Exoneree Diaries: Jacques' new job

February 25, 2014

By: Alison Flowers

WBEZ/Andrew Gill
Jacques Rivera

“It’s constant work, constant work. I could take 50 packages upstairs and come back down, there will be another 50 waiting."

JACQUES’ NEW CERTIFICATE OF INNOCENCE made him eligible for compensation from the state of Illinois, but there was no telling when the nearly $200,000 check for his more than 20-year wrongful incarceration would come. In the meantime, he still needed a job to contribute to living expenses for his mom’s second-floor apartment at his sister’s house. He also had an expensive prescription to fill each month. And he wanted to pay back his sister Candida for the monthly allowance she and her husband had been giving him.

From time to time, his kids would call in need of money. Jacques didn’t mind that too much –he owed it to them, he thought. He also just felt lucky to hear from them. But with Jacques’ story still catching headlines, acquaintances and friends of friends also emerged, asking for a handout – a few G’s here and there, assuming he had millions to spare.

When a storekeeper position at Northwestern University’s medical school opened up, Jacques went in to interview for it. He was nervous, but prepared. He had pored over interview questions with Patricia Messina, a human resources staffing consultant near the Evanston, Ill., campus.

“When you can, give me a call after you’re finished,” Messina told him, wishing him luck.

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

The hiring manager for the job called her before she had a chance to follow up. Jacques was at the top of the list.

Messina called Jacques to share the good news.

“You have the offer and someone will be calling you soon to schedule a start date,” she told him.

“Great! Thank you!” Jacques responded with his raspy voice.

She detected some fear behind his enthusiasm.

“Now his life was going to start,” she thought.

Messina was nervous too: “I feel that way any time I recommend anybody. They’re people. I’m not selling Xerox machines or computers. People – their lives change and things happen.”

But recommending someone with a criminal background – wrongful incarceration or not – was tough. His first-degree murder conviction had only recently been cleared.

Messina told Jacques she would check in with him by email. She wanted to make sure he was staying current on his inbox and getting used to using a computer.

Jacques continued to thank her.

“Well, I didn’t do it,” she assured him. “It’s really up to you to get the job. You’re the one that has to show up to work every day.”

ON HIS FIRST DAY OF WORK in October 2012, Jacques arrived an hour and a half early at 7 in the morning. He was supposed to report to the delivery dock, but couldn’t figure out where to go.

Not knowing what else to do, he walked over to the law school for help. On the way, he bumped into his new supervisor walking down the hallway.

“Oh good, you’re early!” he said.

He directed Jacques upstairs to the eighth floor. They needed to set up for a speaking
engagement. A colleague would show him the way back.

The next day, he showed up early again, around 7:30.

“You don’t need to come in that early,” his coworkers advised.

“I wanna be here,” Jacques would say.

After running 20 to 40 deliveries a day, moving supplies to the medical school labs from the loading dock, Jacques was exhausted – mentally and physically.

“I was beat that first week,” he says. “They had to train me, so I had to learn the routes. That was real difficult.”

His colleagues helped him along. “If you don’t know, just ask,” they said.

ON ONE OF HIS FIRST DELIVERIES, Jacques met Annette, a division administrator on the 13th floor of the Tarry Research and Education Center, part of the medical school.

He barreled into the neurology research office, pushing a dolly of packages.

“Your license needs to be revoked!” Annette teased the new delivery guy.

Jacques laughed, and they became quick friends, chatting during his daily route to her office.

Having worked at Northwestern for more than 20 years, she couldn’t play favorites with her delivery guys. But soon she grew to know Jacques much better than the rest of the crew.
Not long after he started, Jacques plopped down on a chair across from her desk and took a break. He handed her an article, a write-up the law school had done about his case.

She was shocked that her new delivery friend felt comfortable enough to tell her his story.

“He doesn’t hide his background at all,” Annette says. “Unfortunately, he’s had a pretty tough life, but he’s not ashamed of it. He wants people to know him.”

During office small talk, she would ask him what his weekend plans were. Annette noticed he hadn’t yet grown accustomed to scheduling his own free time. He was used to the structure and limitations of prison.

“He has to adjust everyday,” she says. “A lifelong process.”