Exoneree Diaries: Jacques shares his story with Chicago youth

June 17, 2014

By: Alison Flowers

WBEZ/Andrew Gill
Jacques Rivera

“The prison is full of young black men. I mean, they’re young. They are pulling them in there. Some of them are guilty. But the range of sentences they are giving to them when someone else is doing the same crime, I hate to say it, but Caucasian, and getting a lesser sentence. That’s racism.”

JACQUES DROVE THROUGH RUSH HOUR TRAFFIC after work to try to get to the library event on time. On the dashboard of his new car – recently shot up while parked on the street – he kept an old photo of two of his sons, asleep as babies.

He looked in his rear view mirror at the gash on his forehead. He had been rear-ended over the weekend and hit his head. The next day was his granddaughter’s birthday, but he missed out because of a headache. By Monday morning, Jacques was worried about his head injury and asked some folks at the medical school where he worked to check it out.

Parking his car in the lot next to the North Austin Library, Jacques muttered to himself that his car might get towed. He asked two kids walking by if it was OK to park there. The kids shuffled off, startled.

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

He hurried and popped the trunk to take out booklets from the Center on Wrongful Convictions, the organization that took his case.

Inside the library, artwork by kids, pictures of rainbows and hearts adorned the walls. Eight names, “2013: Rahm’s Readers” were posted on bulletin board for a summer reading challenge.

“We’ve got one more person here,” the event organizer, Lisa, announced to the group of neighborhood kids and community members. “He’s going to share his story. His name is Jacques Rivera.”

Jacques took his seat on the panel next to his longtime friends and former prisoners Juan Rivera and Daniel Taylor – both exonerees. Daniel, released a month before, had already found an apartment and obtained his drivers license. He was optimistic about his future.

“It’s been triumphant because I have achieved so much in such a short amount of time,” he said, smiling wide. “The last piece of the puzzle of me reacclimating to society is getting a job.”

Johnnie Lee Savory, released from prison in 2006, also joined the panel. At 14 years old, Savory was arrested in 1977 in a double-murder case. He saw the dawn of DNA evidence and its power to exonerate innocent inmates. For more than 20 years – even after his release – he fought for DNA testing of old evidence. A week earlier, a Peoria County judge ruled DNA evidence could be tested. Savory was elated to have a chance to clear his name.

“How are you doing princess?” Jacques asked a little girl in the front row, buying a little time to catch his breath before launching into his story.

Jacques had told it many times to anyone who would listen. A young boy witnessed a shooting. He wasn’t sure who it was. He didn’t identify me. The victim died. They brought me back in. The young boy said it was me. He lied on the stand. I was sentenced to 85 years.

Every time he retold what happened, Jacques would work himself up, becoming animated, raising his voice and pleading with his audience.

“They know what they’re doing. Believe me!” Jacques said.

Jacques explained to the group that he got his certificate of innocence, which led to some compensation from the state.

“Where do you think that money is coming from?” he asked.

“Taxpayers,” a few adults in the library piped up.

“We’ve got civil lawsuits,” Jacques continued. “If we win that money, where do you think that money is coming from?”

The rhetorical question lingered.  Jacques looked in the faces of the young people, sitting in clusters near the panel. Towards the back, a 13-year-old kid slouched on a chair. The eighth grader wore a pink ribbon bracelet for breast cancer research. His eyes were bloodshot.

“I was a gang member,” Jacques said. “I’m not going to lie about that. It’s because I grew up without a father.”

He called for mentorship, for guys to step up.

“I haven’t had no counseling,” Jacques admitted. “I had no therapy. I had nothing. If it wasn’t for Northwestern, I’m still struggling with my transition back into society.”

Whiffs of free Chipotle burritos filled the room, just delivered, stacked next to Dixie cups, apples and oranges. 

“C’mon, we want to get everyone engaged,” Lisa said, moving the conversation forward.

She asked the kids about different forms of violence. Social violence. Media violence. Gender violence.

“Statistics shows that one group isn’t more violent than the other,” a young man spoke up. “It’s violent for the media to portray that us, as young black people, are criminals.”

“Anybody else? What do you think contributes to violence?” Lisa said.

The Internet, an 11-year-old boy volunteered. Closing mental health clinics. Closing 50 Chicago schools, others suggested.

“So true,” Lisa nodded.

She invited the kids to start eating because the library needed to close in 10 minutes. The children clamored to the food table, grabbing cups of guacamole and bags of burritos. A staff attorney at First Defense Legal Aid, which provides emergency criminal representation, quickly handed out free T-shirts and asked the kids what they would say if a police officer stopped them on the street.

“I’d call my lawyer!” a little girl answered.

“Anybody who gets arrested by Chicago police can call our number, and we’ll send a lawyer to the police station to represent you for free. Who can tell me why that’s important?” Rickets asked.

“Because you can get stopped for no reason,” the 13-year-old with bloodshot eyes answered.

A mountain of pizza arrived with bags of chips. The kids crunched away. Jacques grabbed some food and slung a T-shirt over his shoulder. He headed outside to his car where Juan stood waiting for him.

Their cars were parked side by side. They inspected the damage of Jacques’ new Kia, shaking their heads at the bullet holes.

The two men shared a last name, but had no relation, though they were often mistaken as brothers or cousins. In prison, they had a special whistle they would use.

Driving away, Jacques rolled down his window to say hello to his friend Matilda.

“Nice wheels!” Matilda shouted.

“You know!” Jacques laughed.

“You earned it! It was just on layaway!”

“Slave labor!”

Jacques drove back home to the apartment he shared with his mother. It was summertime, his upstairs room would still be ablaze at this time of day. His mother wanted to put in a fan for him, but Jacques didn’t care too much. You get used to stuff like that in prison, he reminded her.