Jacques Rivera waited through more than 20 years in prison and countless court hearings before he was able to clear his name and go free.
Prosecutors dropped charges against him in 2011, and he received a certificate of innocence — a ruling from a judge that he did not commit the 1988 murder that landed him an 80-year sentence.
Once out, he waited another eight years on a lawsuit against the city of Chicago that ended with a jury awarding him $17.5 million in damages.
Some might say that payday was worth the wait, but Rivera says the money will never replace the years he lost behind bars. And it clearly wasn’t worth it for city taxpayers, who footed the bill for the award and another $6 million to outside lawyers who handled nearly a decade of litigation.
“The crazy thing is, we tried to settle with the city, and they just wouldn’t do it,” Rivera said this week at the Cook County Criminal Courthouse, where he was watching another wrongful conviction case. “Before the trial, I would have been happy with $10 million and my attorneys’ fees.”
Multimillion-dollar payouts come before the Chicago City Council on an almost monthly basis, with the largest sums typically going to victims of police misconduct. Since 2000, the city has paid out nearly $700 million in 300 cases in which people said they were framed by Chicago police.
Of that, $138 million went to outside lawyers who defended the city.
The tally covers only federal lawsuits and does not include fees awarded to the plaintiffs’ lawyers. Also not included are police-related lawsuits alleging misconduct such as false arrest, excessive force, or for crashes and fatal shootings.
“The city is looking at, easily, a billion-dollar liability over the last 23 years, with plenty more on tap,” said Andrew M. Stroth, a civil rights attorney whose nonprofit organization, Truth, Hope & Justice, collaborated on the report with the global law firm Ropes & Gray, the Law Firm Antiracism Alliance and Chicago-based insurance and risk management firm Aon.
Stroth is currently representing James Gibson in a lawsuit against the city, alleging he was tortured by former Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge into a false confession that landed him in prison for nearly 30 years.
“As far as I can tell, they have no strategy for how they evaluate these cases,” Stroth said. “And that is delaying justice for men like James Gibson at phenomenal costs to taxpayers.”
Stroth said the report was shared with the city Tuesday. The city’s Law Department did not respond to questions emailed by the Sun-Times late in the day.
Rivera was one of the first people to be exonerated based on claims of misconduct against former Chicago police Det. Reynaldo Guevara. The report lists 11 active lawsuits involving claims against Guevara.
Of 190 wrongful-conviction lawsuits pending in federal court, 156 involve allegations against former Chicago police Sgt. Ronald Watts, who in 2012 was sentenced to two years in prison for shaking down an FBI informant for $5,000.
“These guys have already lost so much time from their lives, it’s wrong to make them wait longer,” Rivera said. “And most of these guys, they want to settle. They want to move on with their lives and the rest of the time they have left.”
Eye-popping settlements are nothing new in Chicago. Wrongful-conviction cases have resulted in some of the biggest, and most controversial, payouts by the city.
Between 2017 and 2020, the city paid out $72 million in settlements and judgments in just 19 wrongful-conviction cases, nearly a third of the $250 million the city paid out in lawsuits across all city departments, according to a report last year by the City Hall inspector general’s office.
The same report faulted the city for poorly coordinating data sharing between the CPD, the Law Department and the Risk Management Department, hindering efforts to spot trends and identify ways to reduce the city’s risk of getting sued.
Ropes & Gray partner Alexander Zeltser said the firm wanted to develop a database that might help city officials weigh decisions in ongoing and future cases and identify patterns to prevent future wrongful convictions — practices that would be standard at a large corporation that found itself paying out large amounts in lawsuits on a regular basis.
In a corporate environment “you’d measure your costs of stricter, more robust training or more robust compliance procedures against the cost of having real negative outcomes that have a human cost … as well as a financial cost,” Zeltser said.
Given the volume of cases related to wrongful convictions, the city could have developed a matrix to evaluate the likelihood of winning a case at trial and the potential costs of a jury verdict against the city, said Jon Loevy, whose firm Loevy & Loevy has handled nearly half the wrongful-conviction lawsuits against the city.
In May, a jury awarded Loevy client Adam Gray $27 million, the largest amount the city has paid out in a wrongful-conviction case, according to the report.
Gray was arrested at 14 and spent 24 years in prison for an arson murder conviction that was overturned based on improved fire science evidence and allegations that police coerced bogus witness testimony.
Loevy has dealt with the Law Department and lawyers hired by the city under four different mayors dating back to Richard M. Daley. He said the lack of a methodical approach to settling cases has spanned every administration.
“My clients are seeking justice for having their lives destroyed, they are not the villains of this story,” Loevy said. “When we have done cases in California or New York, if you bring a meritorious case, they usually come out of the box with a reasonable offer.
“Here, you go to trial and it seems to be more of a lottery where one guy gets $7 million, another guy gets $20 [million] and maybe both of them would have settled for more like $8 million,” he added. “And you’ve saved millions in attorney’s fees.”