Jury Awards $22 Million in Damages to Wrongly Convicted Death Row Inmate
Nathson Fields’s federal jury verdict for wrongful conviction one of largest in U.S. History.
A federal jury on Thursday awarded a whopping $22 million in damages to a former El Rukn gang member who alleged two Chicago police detectives framed him for an infamous 1984 double murder that sent him to death row.
The Tribune has chronicled the case in several front-page stories over the past two years, detailing how Nathson Fields’ “street file” was found in 2011 buried in an old filing cabinet with hundreds of other homicide cases in a South Side police station basement.
After two and half days of deliberations, the jury found that Sgt. David O’Callaghan and Lt. Joseph Murphy violated Fields’ civil rights by withholding critical evidence from defense attorneys that could have pointed away from him as the killer.
In what is believed to be one of the largest awards in a wrongful conviction case in Chicago history, the jury held the city liable for $22 million in damages and also assessed punitive damages against the officers — $30,000 for O’Callaghan and $10,000 for Murphy, money that each might have to pay himself.
In a brief statement Thursday, a spokesman for the city’s Law Department said the city was “disappointed” by the verdict and would appeal. O’Callaghan’s lawyer, Shelly Kulwin, said he was “deeply disappointed.” Attorneys for Murphy could not be reached.
At a news conference hours after the verdict, Fields grew teary-eyed as he stood with his family and attorneys at the Near West Side offices of Loevy & Loevy, reflecting on his time on death row and how close he had come to being executed for a crime he didn’t commit.
Fields recalled the suffocating feeling of being locked in a 5-by-7-foot cell so confined that he could “touch all the walls” if he stood in the middle. He also spoke of the despair of watching fellow death row inmates lose their lives to stress and witnessing others being marched to their execution.
“I had times that I was under so much stress I didn’t think I could take anymore, so this day is very humbling, and I’m so happy,” Fields told reporters.
While he said the jury verdict brought him closure, he said he regretted his mother wasn’t still alive to witness it.
His lawyer, Jon Loevy, said the jury awarded more than the $18 million he sought — $1 million for each of the 18 years Fields spent in prison.
Loevy said police kept street files on at least another 400 defendants, but it was impossible to say how many of them had been wrongly convicted.
“Not only is Nate a victim of a wrongful conviction … there are other guys, too, in prison who are there because … that exculpatory evidence was withheld from them,” he said.
This marked the third trial for Fields over his lawsuit, which was originally brought by attorney Candace Gorman who uncovered much of what became the crucial evidence in the case.
The first ended in a mistrial in 2014. In the second trial, a jury awarded him only $80,000 in damages. But the verdict was overturned after U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly decided jurors should have heard evidence that Earl Hawkins, an El Rukn hit man who was a key witness for the city and police, was expecting to be freed from prison years early.
After the trial, it was revealed that police detectives and prosecutors involved in the case had written glowing letters to the parole board about Hawkins and his cooperation — although lawyers for the city have presented evidence that prison officials had already granted Hawkins’ release before they read them.
Last month, as Fields’ latest trial was getting under way, the U.S. attorney’s office filed an unusual motion asking a federal judge to cut the 25-year prison sentence of convicted El Rukn killer Derrick Kees to 12 years because of his anticipated testimony against Fields. Earlier this month, Kees testified that his agreement could mean he’ll gain freedom next year.
While commonplace in criminal cases, it’s highly unusual for prosecutors to cut deals with witnesses in exchange for testimony in civil proceedings.
Attorney Leonard Goodman, who represented Fields in a failed petition for a certificate of innocence, told the Tribune last month that unless there’s a bona fide public safety reason to negotiate for a prisoner’s release, such deals are tantamount to bribery.
“I’ve never seen it,” Goodman said. “What possible public safety reason could there be in a civil trial to be letting serial killers out of prison?”
The stunning verdict marks the latest twist in the nearly four-decade legacy of El Rukn prosecutions that decimated the leadership of one of the more flamboyant and murderous street gangs in Chicago history.
Led by kingpin Jeff Fort, El Rukn operated under cover of a so-called religious organization out of a heavily fortified former movie theater called the “fort” that once stood near Pershing Road and Drexel Avenue.
Even after Fort went to prison, he ran El Rukn from behind bars, participating by phone in weekly meetings of his leadership team, according to testimony.
While widely hailed as a triumph, the prosecution ultimately exploded in controversy and scandal. Numerous convictions were reversed after it was alleged that several gang leaders cooperating with the government — including Hawkins — had received perks while in custody, ranging from drugs and clothes to conjugal visits in federal offices.
The fallout nearly ended the career of Assistant U.S. Attorney William Hogan Jr., at the time a rising star in the Justice Department who had overseen the prosecution. Hogan was fired from his job amid an FBI investigation into the bombshell allegations, but he fought to clear his name. Two years later, Hogan was ordered reinstated to his post at the U.S. attorney’s office by an administrative judge who found no convincing evidence of wrongdoing on his part.
In testimony in Fields’ trial earlier this month, Hogan, now in his 36th year as a federal prosecutor in Chicago, denied he had any knowledge of the drug use or sexual misbehavior by several cooperating witnesses. Either way, he said, “it had nothing to do with the prosecutions.”
Hogan was also asked repeatedly about how Kees, in a bid to get out of his federal plea deal in 1994, alleged Hogan had cut a side deal promising him that he’d serve less time. In response, prosecutors wrote at the time that Kees’ false allegations ruined his credibility as a trial witness.
But Hogan testified Friday that he’d never seen Kees’ motion to withdraw his guilty plea and that he’d only recently read his own office’s response.
“The first time I read it was two weeks ago,” he testified.
Fields and Hawkins were originally convicted of the 1984 slayings of Talman Hickman and Jerome “Fuddy” Smith, a leader of the rival Black Gangster Disciples’ Goon Squad who Fort believed was encroaching on El Rukn drug territory.
But Circuit Judge Thomas Maloney, who presided over the bench trial, was later convicted of pocketing $10,000 to fix the case, only to return the money in the midst of the trial when he suspected the FBI was onto the bribe. Maloney instead convicted Hawkins and Fields and sentenced both to death.
While on death row, Hawkins began cooperating with investigators, eventually testifying against dozens of gang leaders as well as Maloney, who was convicted in 1993 of fixing several murder cases, including that of Hawkins and Fields.
Hawkins pleaded guilty to lesser charges of armed violence in exchange for a 78-year sentence and a promise to testify against Fields at his retrial. During the 2009 retrial, Hawkins said he saw Fields fire the five shots that killed Hickman. But Judge Vincent Gaughan acquitted Fields of both murders, ripping Hawkins as an unreliable witness who had admitted to the murders of 15 to 20 people during his days as an El Rukn soldier.
“If someone has such disregard for human life, what regard will he have for his oath?” Gaughan said in finding Fields not guilty.
After the acquittal, Fields filed a petition for a certificate of innocence to clear his name and allow him to recoup money from the state for his wrongful imprisonment. But county prosecutors strenuously fought back. To prove that Fields was the actual killer, they made unusual deals with Hawkins and Kees to testify at the civil hearing — not a criminal proceeding where such maneuvering is commonplace.
Then-Presiding Judge Paul Biebel denied the certificate of innocence for Fields based on that testimony.
The controversy over buried street files first erupted in 1983 when Detective Frank Laverty blew the whistle during a trial for the killing of a 12-year-old girl. Incensed that the prosecution was going forward despite evidence that defendant George Jones was innocent, Laverty turned his street file over to defense attorneys in the middle of the trial. The charges against Jones were dropped.
Laverty, a veteran homicide detective, was demoted to overseeing urine tests for recruits at the police academy, but his whistle-blowing wasn’t for naught. After Jones successfully sued the police for railroading him, police issued a new general order doing away with street files and instituting what are called general progress reports in which detectives’ notes and other updates on the investigation are typed into a form that is inventoried and subject to subpoena.
But Fields’ trial has shown that the use of street files by Chicago police didn’t end. The hundreds of files found in the Wentworth Area basement never should have been there at all. In fact, all homicide files older than 10 years were supposed to be placed in the Police Department’s permanent records division, where they would be subject to subpoena.
Discovered in Fields’ street file were handwritten notes about alternate suspects from early in the investigation as well as lineup cards that were not included in the information turned over to Fields’ criminal defense attorneys.
In his closing argument Monday, Loevy said the information that was withheld was “maybe only five pages total,” but that it could have meant the difference between exoneration and death row for Fields.
“It’s not that it’s a ton of paper,” Loevy told the jury, holding up the 6-inch-thick, fading Manila folder that contained Fields’ street file. “But it’s important paper.”