Exoneree Diaries: Proving Rivera's innocence (again)

January 27, 2014

By: Alison Flowers

WBEZ/Andrew Gill
Jacques Rivera

“They would never accept the fact that I was innocent. They would have never admit to that fact. So they fought it. So without the certificate of innocence, I wouldn’t be able to move on. It would still be on my record, first of all. I wouldn’t be compensated for it, to get my life back on track.”

JACQUES WAS HANGING AROUND the law school when attorney Jane Raley explained to him how a certificate of innocence worked – that he would have to petition the state and prove his innocence again to receive about $200,000 in compensation and be able to clear his record. The petition could go uncontested and be granted, she told him. Or it could be another legal battle.

When Jacques was released in 2011, a spokeswoman for Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez told the Chicago Tribune that prosecutors "could not go forward in good faith" with a retrial. But after Jane filed Jacques’ certificate of innocence petition, the state opposed.

“Really? Really?” Jacques says today, incredulously.

Jane took care of the next steps and handled the delays. Meanwhile, separately, Jacques had to decide who should handle his high-stakes civil lawsuit. He had first thought he would stick with Northwestern. But advisors told Jacques he could choose whatever lawyer he wished.

“I understand all that,” Jacques said, his loyalty tugging at him.

He had seen attorney Jon Loevy of Loevy & Loevy law firm on the news. The famed lawyer had won more than $100 million in jury verdicts for his clients.

“He’s got this thing about him,” Jacques says of Loevy. “I hate to say this, but it was like meeting Jesus!”

When Locke Bowman of the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern’s law school proposed to work together with Loevy on the case, Jacques was on board.

“Man, these are some down lawyers!” Jacques thought. “They fight. Man, it’s a privilege.”

In a case similar to Jacques’, Loevy had won $21 million for exoneree Juan Johnson in 2009, targeting retired Chicago police detective Reynaldo Guevara, who specialized in gang investigations. In Johnson’s case, Guevara was accused of framing him. In others, he is accused of beating confessions out of suspects.

To Jacques, Guevara was at the center of the murder investigation that led to his wrongful conviction. He was also the man that found him in his dreams, shooting him in the back.

“Because he won't do it from the front,” Jacques says.

LOEVY & LOEVY ATTORNEY STEVEN ART had worked at Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions during law school, where he graduated in 2009. He had heard the clinic was looking into Jacques’ case.

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

He was busy working on Juan Rivera’s case, a man who did time with Jacques. They shared a last name and were so close, people thought they were brothers.

Jacques was released while Art was working as a clerk. They met at Jacques’ welcome home party the Center threw for him, but it wasn’t until Art got hired by Loevy and took on the civil suit that his steady interaction with Jacques began.

It would be a long process, spanning years, with depositions to be conducted, subpoenas to be served and other fact-finding to be done.

Unlike many exonerees, Jacques’ case had the elements that could lead to a payout.

In June 2012, Loevy and Bowman filed Jacques’ civil complaint, suing 11 police officers, the estate of another, Chicago police detectives in general and the City of Chicago. Guevara topped the list of defendants.

“They knew from the 12-year-old witness in this case that Jacques was not involved in the shooting of Felix Valentin,” Art says. “They ignored that fact. They ignored Jacques’ alibi. They fabricated evidence. And they withheld evidence in order to frame him for a crime he didn’t commit.”

A month after filing the case, lawyers for Guevara from the high-power municipal defense Sotos Law Firm, submitted their initial answer to the complaint. Sentence by sentence, claim by claim, the response was the same:

“Defendant Guevara, on the advice of counsel, asserts the rights guaranteed to him by the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution, and therefore declines to answer at this time.”

CIRCUIT COURT JUDGE MICHAEL MCHALE had an answer to Jacques’ certificate of innocence petition. He had listened to oral arguments and was ready to rule. It was September 5, 2012, about a month shy of one year since Jacques had been a free man.

The state had argued Jacques lied at trial about being in a gang, citing that 20 years later he had told an investigator and assistant state’s attorney that, at the time of the crime, he was still a Latin Kings gang member. McHale said that fact, had it been known, could not have contributed to his conviction.

The judge also took note that prosecutors had offered no testimony to corroborate the notion that the shooting victim, Felix Valentin, had identified Jacques from his hospital bed before dying.
Despite the allegation, police arrested someone else from the Imperial Gangsters after the bedside interview with Valentin.

“Notwithstanding I’m well aware of a two-sentence portion of what I consider to be a suspiciously incomplete and questionable police report that was included in the documents,” McHale told the court. “But again, I have not considered that police report evidence because it is hearsay.”

McHale also addressed the lineup evidence that had been withheld.

“He found that first lineup to be very suspicious,” Jacques says of the hearing. “It was looking good.”

Jacques was anchored by Jane and attorney Judy Royal – the “dream team,” as he told reporters when he was released – when McHale declared what he had been waiting to hear for almost a quarter of a century.

“This Petitioner has proven by a preponderance of the evidence that he is innocent of the murder of Felix Valentin,” McHale said.

Jacques cried and hugged Jane, then reached for Judy.

“It was like, ‘it’s been said, let it be done,’” he remembers. “That’s final.”

One last question by the state perforated the judge’s declaration.

“Judge, could I get an Oct. 3rd or 4th date for an appeal check date?”

The intimation of an appeal didn’t bother Jacques.

“Go ahead,” he thought. “You keep losing. That’s the second fight you lost. Can’t you get it through your head?”

Jane and Judy took Jacques out to lunch.

“A fancy restaurant near the law school,” he says.