Exoneree Diaries: Jacques Rivera's conviction
It wasn’t his fault. He was a child at the time.
ON A LATE SUMMER AFTERNOON in August 1988, 12-year-old Orlando had a hankering for some candy. A video game store at the corner sold snacks, so he headed down the stairs of his family’s West Side apartment building.
As he was leaving, he saw 16-year-old Felix Valentin sitting in a parked car in the alley, waiting for his brother to pick up Orlando’s sister for a friend’s wedding.
Some men drove up, and one got out, firing shots at Felix. The shots were close and so low in noise that Orlando first thought they came from a BB gun. Felix tried to cover his head, then slumped forward and slightly to the right.
Orlando ran to the store for help. Finding none, he ran back to the crime scene and hid in an alcove in his building’s façade about 25 feet away from the car. From his hiding place, Orlando saw the man fire one last shot and look around. For a moment, Orlando saw his face. He thought he recognized him as someone who played baseball at Humboldt Park about a mile away.
The man hopped in the passenger side of a brown Chevy and took off, turning right on Spaulding Avenue, known at the time to be Latin Kings gang territory.
The medical examiner would later count 11 gunshot-related wounds on Felix’s body. He found one in the back of his head, one in his shoulder and the rest in his hands and back. Six .22-caliber lead bullets from the teen’s chest cavity would be inventoried.
FELIX WAS STILL ALIVE when Chicago police officers visited him at the hospital. After talking with him, they returned to the station and brought back a photo album of the Imperial Gangsters, a street gang said to be feuding with the Campbell Boys and the Latin Kings gangs. Police reports following his death indicate Felix was a former Campbell Boy.
Felix couldn’t move his arm. He was hooked up to tubes and receiving oxygen through his nostrils. He was able to motion yes and no to questions. One of the police officers moved the album pages for him. He identified two men: the shooter and the driver of the getaway car.
The next day, in the early morning hours, an Imperial Gangster, whose photo appeared in the album, was arrested. Soon after, he was released without being charged. Police couldn’t track down the second suspect, who was never apprehended.
NEITHER OF THOSE TWO SUSPECTS happened to be 23-year-old Jacques Rivera.
The night of the shooting, police came to Orlando’s home for an interview. He described the gunman as wearing dark pants and a black jean jacket. More notably, he said the shooter had brown hair and a ponytail partially dyed yellow.
Black and gold were known Latin Kings gang colors, so the officers showed Orlando some albums. It was full of photographs, about four or five per page.
Orlando didn’t pick anyone out of the first book. In the second book, he saw Jacques’ photograph. He told police he resembled the shooter.
A few days later, Orlando’s mom and sister accompanied him to the police station. Orlando viewed a lineup alone. He did not identify Jacques.
A week had passed when Orlando came across the real gunman, a man hanging around Funston Elementary School. He was wearing the same black jean jacket as during the shooting. Orlando saw him come up to another man and gave him an Imperial Gangster handshake.
FELIX died 18 days after the shooting. The next day, Orlando was brought in to view a second lineup. As he waited, he told a police officer that Jacques was not the gunman, that the real shooter was an Imperial Gangster, a neighborhood guy. He told another woman, who looked like a lawyer, the same thing.
“Don’t be afraid,” she said. “We will protect you. We will keep you safe.”
Orlando didn’t know what else to do.
When he viewed the second lineup, he identified Jacques, subject #3, standing in the middle, as the shooter.
IN 1990, Judge Michael Close presided over Jacques’ remarkably short bench trial, where he would weigh the evidence and make a ruling.
No police officer testified for the state, except Officer Reynaldo Guevara on rebuttal. Guevara said that Jacques was wearing a gold ponytail when he was arrested for the shooting, despite a lineup photograph showing no ponytail. Jacques’ pastor and coworker both testified they had never seen him with dyed hair.
The only evidence was the only eyewitness: Orlando. He was sticking to his story.
“Mr. Lopez, do you know what it means to tell the truth?” the judge asked Orlando, who had turned 13 by the time of the trial.
“And do you know what happens if you don’t tell the truth?”
“What happens if you don’t tell the truth?”
“I’ll be punished.”
The judge found Orlando competent to testify. When prompted during his testimony to point to the gunman, Orlando motioned to Jacques.
“The man with the sweater on over there?” the prosecutor said.
“For the record, the in-court identification of the defendant Jacques Rivera.”
The prosecutor also had Orlando put an ‘x’ over Jacques’ face in the second lineup photograph, the one where Orlando had ID’d him after trying to tell police of his mistake.
The key evidence missing from the trial was that police had conducted that first lineup — and that originally, Orlando had not picked Jacques.
JUDGE CLOSE FOUND JACQUES guilty. About three months later, Jacques appeared before the court for sentencing.
His attorney asked for the minimum sentence, describing Jacques as a family man. The judge grilled Jacques’ lawyer about whether his three children were by the same woman or different women, whether they were on public aid and whether Jacques had ever supported them.
The judge then delivered a monologue about the epidemic of crime in Chicago, the pluralistic society that the United States had become, people taking the law unto themselves and the deterrent effect of sentencing individuals to long periods of incarceration.
“I believe that it does have a deterrent effect, as it has a deterrent effect on the defendant as long as he can be locked up and caged like an animal in part of the gulag that we call the Illinois Department of Corrections,” the judge said.
He sentenced him to 80 years in prison, the maximum extended sentence. And he tacked on five years for a firearm charge.
Follow the stories of three Illinois exonerees through their wrongful convictions, releases and struggles to put their lives back together as free men.