As we was walking forward, you could see all the news media, the lights, because, everyone was screaming, ‘Yea!’ And I put my head down for a minute, and when I looked up, my kids were running at me. So, that was, that was a very special moment to see my kids there.
October 4, 2011
“I know I don’t have to remind anybody in the courtroom that there will be no outbursts of any kind, regardless of what happens today, right? Okay. And if anybody does have a cell phone, they need to turn it off. Not on silent, not on vibrate, but off. And if you don’t, there will be consequences, okay?”
Those were Cook County Judge Neera Walsh’s instructions to the courtroom moments before telling Jacques Rivera he was a free man.
He had thus far spent 21 years in the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections, almost all of them at Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison known as “Hotel Hell.” The facility sits on 2,264 acres of land in Joliet, Ill., just southwest of the Chicago metro area. A 33-foot wall and guard towers surround the prison.
Follow the stories of three Illinois exonerees through their wrongful convictions, releases and struggles to put their lives back together as free men.
Some of Jacques’ family and friends sat on the prosecution’s side of the courtroom to get a better view of him. They had started showing up to his appeal hearings with the hope that each day might be the day.
In the third row sat Jacques’ three children. Near them, Jacques’ older sister, Jeanette, breathed heavily. Her heart pounding, she prayed alongside her mother. The two women had each recently had dreams that his release was imminent.
The state proceeded. Motion State nolle.
“It would be a motion State nolle prose,” the judge repeated.
Nolle prose. It was a legal term Jacques hadn’t heard before in all his years in and out of courtrooms. Nolle prose, short for nolle prosequi, which was Latin for “We shall no longer prosecute.”
Jacques didn’t want to move around too much, fearing the bailiff would think he was going to run.
“Mr. Rivera, you are released. Good luck to you, sir,” Judge Walsh said.
The crowd gasped. People looked around, checking each other’s expressions for confirmation of what they had just heard.
Managing the shock, Jacques shook his head. I told you so. It’s true.
He was free, but not quite, it was explained to him. There was, of course, paperwork to be done. He would need to be processed out of the Cook County Jail, where he’d been awaiting a new trial.
Unable to stifle their outbursts – like children about to explode into laughter in the middle of church – Jacques’ friends and family burst through the courtroom doors and began to scream and hug one another in the hallway.
Many hopped on the cell phones they weren’t supposed to have on them. Jeanette, having followed the rules, hustled to the parking lot where she opened her glove compartment and grabbed her brother-in-law’s phone to call her daughter and husband.
“He’s free,” she said.
BACK INSIDE THE JAIL, correctional officers escorted Jacques, buffering his every move. If he were to trip and fall, or be attacked, the state could be held liable.
“It took them long enough,” Jacques remembers about the outtake process. “It took them almost seven hours. They want to be sure though. They've had murderers go that wasn't supposed to go.”
Jacques had no property, so the staff found some jeans and t-shirt that would fit him.
He was led to the waiting room at the Cook County Sheriff’s Office Division Five. There, his attorney, Jane Raley, a clinical professor of law at Northwestern University, was waiting.
Jacques started to weep when he saw Jane. She hugged him.
The correctional officer asked if they were ready. Jane gave him a Chicago Bears sports jacket from one of his sons who was waiting outside. Together, they headed toward the door until Jacques started hyperventilating. He stopped to catch his breath.
“It’s ok,” the officer told him. “If you want to go back, we can wait.”
“I’ve waited 21 years,” Jacques said. “I’m never going to go back. I’m moving forward.”
With his head slightly down, clasping his mouth to contain the nausea, he walked through the gates, flanked by Jane and Judy Royal, another Northwestern attorney.
He looked up, and amidst the cheering crowd, news cameras and bright lights, his children ran to him. Grown up, they greeted him at eye level. After breaking free of the string of embraces, they stopped to take a picture. Only later did Jacques realize their stance mirrored a photo taken of them during a prison visit just after he was convicted in 1990. In that picture, his youngest son is on his left and his oldest son, Jacques Jr., is on his right. Jacques is holding his baby girl in his arms.
“Real strange how that was, you know?” Jacques said of both pictures that now hang in his bedroom.
Cameras clicked and flickered as Jacques hugged his sobbing mother, her cries barely audible, ambient in the news footage.
“I was afraid somebody was going to pinch me and say you’re dreamin’,” Gwendolyn Rivera told reporters.
Jacques draped his arms over his mother’s shoulders, as though to stabilize her or soak up her pain. “But” – she gasped for breath between tears – “It’s a dream come true.”
A makeshift news conference, six microphones with news flags appeared in front of Jacques, supporters hovered behind him.
“The city of Chicago needs to know the truth. I didn’t kill that young man,” his voice brimmed with angry emotion. “And that’s the bottom line.”
The cameras turned to Jane and she gave a piece of the back story.
“I thought, ‘My goodness! This person should not have been convicted in the first place,’” Jane said. “And then it took us 10 years to find the eyewitness.”
Reporters asked him about that eyewitness, the young boy who testified against him at his original trial, who later ‘fessed up as a man in his thirties and said it was all a lie.
“I love Orlando Lopez,” Jacques said. “It wasn’t his fault. He was a 12-year-old boy. He was misguided. He was manipulated.”
Throughout the press conference, Jacques also garnered laughs from the crowd, proclaiming Jane and Judy as his dream team. Jane beamed.
“America had a 1996 Olympic dream team. This is my dream team!” he said.
JACQUES PILED INTO A CAR with his kids and his ex-wife, whom he hadn’t seen or talked to much since their divorce in the 90s, a few years after he went to prison. They cut through the awkwardness and ambiguity and said hello.
How are you?
I’m good. I’m good.
They took him back to his sister’s house in Chicago’s Belmont Cragin neighborhood on the Northwest side. Channel 7 news, the city’s NBC affiliate, followed the caravan of cars.
Waiting on the home front, Jacques’ sister Jeanette ran barefoot from her house to the corner so she could see the parade of people driving toward her sister’s place. The honking and wailing crescendoed as the cars approached. She ran back three houses down to fetch her shoes, scuttling back a third time to wait for her brother on the sidewalk.
“He was like the president,” Jeanette said, remembering the makeshift motorcade protecting her brother. “He was like an important person.”
Jacques emerged from his son’s car and embraced his sister.
Oh my god, I can’t believe it. You’re free. You’re here.
Yep, sis. Yep, sis.
INSIDE THEIR SISTER’S HOME, pizza delivery was on its way. You sure you don’t want a steak or something? People told him about all the food he’s been missing.
“I don’t want no more processed food,” Jacques said. “Make sure it’s good food.”
But that night, he only took a bite or two of pizza to be polite. He was sweaty, and his stomach cramped up into nervous knots. Everything was moving too fast. People were snapping photos from their smartphones, LED lights ablaze. They handed him their various mobile devices to say hello to old friends.
The news knocked on the door.
“Nah, tell ‘em to leave me alone,” Jacques said.
Back in the family kitchen, Jeanette gave her brother some advice. For starters, he’d need an ID card. She told him to make sure he keeps all his receipts this time, a standing family joke. What’s your alibi? Where you at? What are you doing? Got your receipts?
Jeanette became very serious. “Jack, don’t hang around the old block,” she told him. “Watch your shoulder. Watch your back.”
I lost him once, she thought. She wasn’t going to lose him again.
“I know, I know,” he said. “I’m a grown man. I can take care of myself.”
“Yeah, but this is the real world,” she said. “It’s like you’ve been sleeping under a rock and all of a sudden you’ve come back to life.”
JACQUES COULDN’T GET TO SLEEP that night. He was tucked away, up in a second-floor bedroom, his many guests having departed around midnight.
Finally, he went downstairs and into the kitchen.
He found an old butcher’s knife, walked back upstairs and slid the blade under this pillow.