By Jason Meisner
Chicago Tribune

Jacques Rivera hunched forward at the courtroom table Friday and pressed his forehead to the fingertips of his folded hands, whispering a prayer as the jury filed in.

When the verdict was read — more than $17 million for his wrongful conviction at the hands of a notorious Chicago police detective — Rivera burst into loud sobs, his body shaking. In the hallway after court, he took off his suit coat, donned a T-shirt reading “Trust & Believe” and hugged a supporter tight.

In addition to finding that the police had violated Rivera’s due process and constitutional rights, the 11-member jury also held the city of Chicago responsible, ruling Rivera was victimized by a practice at the Police Department of withholding police reports and other investigative materials from criminal defense attorneys.

The jury awarded $17 million in compensatory damages against the city and also ordered Guevara and the other two ex-detectives — Steve Gawrys and Ed Mingey — to pay a combined $175,000 in punitive damages out of their own pockets. A fourth former detective, Gillian McLaughlin, was cleared of any wrongdoing.

Guevara, 75, was not in attendance in court at the time of the verdict. The other officers showed no visible reaction as it was announced.

The award was one of the largest ever involving Chicago police misconduct — and it could just be the beginning.

Rivera’s lawsuit was the first in a string of similar cases against Guevara, a former Chicago police gang crimes detective who has been accused of widespread corruption in the 1980s and 1990s that sent more than a dozen innocent men to prison.

One of Rivera’s attorneys, Locke Bowman, said after court that the verdict was “a real call out” to the city of Chicago.

“They need to think seriously about what they are going to do to make things right,” Bowman told reporters in the lobby of the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse.

Meanwhile, Rivera’s lead attorney, Jon Loevy, called the Guevara scandal one of the biggest in Chicago’s history, suggesting it could even surpass the notorious torture cases involving disgraced former Cmdr. Jon Burge.

Reached by phone later Friday, Guevara’s attorney, Thomas Leinenweber, said that while he respected the jury’s verdict, what happened to Rivera was not the fault of the police.

A spokesman for the Law Department said the city was “disappointed” by the verdict and evaluating its legal options.

Rivera, a former Latin King, was convicted of killing 16-year-old Felix Valentin during a summer of rising violence among warring street gangs in Chicago’s West Humboldt Park neighborhood in 1988.

The state’s only witness, Orlando Lopez, was 12 at the time of the murder. Lopez testified at the trial that he was hiding in an alcove when he saw Rivera fire shots into Valentin’s parked car, then turn and look in his direction.

Judge Michael Close convicted Rivera of the murder and sentenced him to 80 years in prison.

It wasn’t until 2010 that lawyers with Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions tracked down Lopez and he recanted his testimony, swearing in an affidavit that he tried to notify police and prosecutors before Rivera’s trial that he had identified the wrong individual but that no one would listen.

“I have been waiting for years for someone to find me so I could tell the truth,” Lopez said in the sworn statement. “My coming forward now is all about redemption.”

In his closing argument Wednesday, Loevy described the Police Department investigation of Valentin’s shooting as a joke from the start. Detectives’ reports went missing, lineups were rigged and seasoned detectives were able to steer Lopez into making an identification just to close a case and look good, the attorney said.

“The whole thing was dirty,” he said.

In asking for as much as $42 million in damages, Loevy characterized the case as an egregious one even for a city accustomed to big payouts in police misconduct suits.

In his closing remarks, attorney James Sotos, who represented McLaughlin and Gawrys, said what happened to Rivera was an indication of a criminal justice system that was “broken.” But it wasn’t the detectives’ fault, he said.

“They had a 12-year-old boy who said, ‘I saw it.’ And that’s what they gave to prosecutors,” Sotos said, adding that Rivera’s criminal defense attorney at the time, now-Cook County Judge Kenneth Wadas, did a poor job of poking holes in what was an admittedly weak case.

The trial unfolded amid mushrooming allegations that the now-retired Guevara ran a widespread corruption racket for years in predominantly Hispanic West Side neighborhoods, pinning false murder cases on suspects, shaking down drug dealers for protection money and taking payments from gang members to change the outcomes of police lineups.

So far, Rivera and 17 other men have either had cases collapse or their convictions thrown out over allegations of misconduct by Guevara. Eight other federal lawsuits are pending against the ex-detective, and other people still in prison are pushing prosecutors to have their cases reheard, records show.

In case after case, Guevara has repeatedly refused to testify when asked under oath about allegations of wrongdoing. Testifying in the Rivera trial earlier this month, Guevara invoked his Fifth Amendment right more than 200 times in a little more than an hour, including when asked directly whether he’d ever framed anyone.

Guevara’s decision to invoke his right against self-incrimination protects him from potential criminal liability, but jurors in civil trials are allowed to draw a “negative inference” from his refusal to answer questions.

After the verdict Friday, Rivera fought back tears as he was asked about the pain of losing so many years with his family — the missed birthdays, Christmases, graduations and other life markers that passed him by while he sat in prison. His daughter, Jennifer, was 6 months old when he was locked up. His mother, Gwen, who never gave up hope that he’d be cleared, died a short time after his release.

“I was kidnapped by the Chicago Police Department, by Reynaldo Guevara,” Rivera said. “I wasn’t a perfect guy, but I wasn’t out there doing nothing wrong. But (Guevara) came after to me. And we still don’t know why.”

This article was initially published in the Chicago Tribune.