For Jon Loevy, go-to lawyer for the wrongfully convicted, that’s the multimillion-dollar question.

Pacing the hallway in a black suit and lavender shirt, a pencil-thin mustache adorning his upper lip, Jacques Rivera accepts good wishes from family and friends as people pour into the federal courtroom — so many that a security officer has to direct the overflow crowd elsewhere to watch a video simulcast of opening arguments. The 53-year-old plaintiff isn’t eager to relive the nightmare at the heart of this civil case, he says, “but it’s going to close a chapter of my life.” And if he wins, the financial award could be substantial.

The attorney looking to secure that compensation, Jon Loevy, is cooling his heels nearby. He and his co-counsel filed Rivera v. Guevara et al. six years ago to the day, on June 7, 2012, so Loevy considers himself more than ready. His hair wiry, his build wiry, his energy wired, his dark gray suit hanging on him as if it weren’t completely familiar with his body, Loevy cuts a scrappier figure than that of James Sotos, the opposing lead attorney representing multiple retired Chicago police officers. Sotos stands a head taller, with neatly groomed dark hair that squares with his polished veneer.

If Loevy, 50, looks like the little guy taking on the big guys defending the police and the City of Chicago, that’s fine with him. He is, he declares in his clipped rasp, “very confident.”

Does he feel that way before every trial?

“Not infrequently. I’m usually right.”

As Loevy steps into the courtroom, his father, Arthur — who has worked with him at Loevy & Loevy since they started the law firm with Jon’s wife in 1998 — removes his watch and places it on his son’s wrist, a pretrial ritual of theirs. They take their places: Arthur on a spectators’ bench to the left, Jon at the long table closest to the jury box, alongside Rivera and other lawyers from Loevy & Loevy and Northwestern University’s MacArthur Justice Center. Three teams of defense lawyers and more than 10 police officer defendants populate the tables to the right.

The most prominent of those defendants is Reynaldo Guevara, a 75-year-old retired detective. Dressed in a gray plaid sweater, wearing dark-rimmed glasses, and clutching a Bible, he has been accused in multiple civil suits of running a corruption racket in largely Hispanic neighborhoods on the West Side in the 1980s and 1990s. Allegations against him include tying innocent people to murder cases, accepting bribes from gang members to interfere with murder investigations, and collecting protection money from drug dealers. Eighteen men put away by Guevara have seen their convictions overturned, and petitions on behalf of more prisoners have been filed.

Pretty much everyone in the courtroom today agrees on this: On August 27, 1988, Rivera did not walk up to a car in a Northwest Side alley and pump 10 bullets into 16-year-old Felix Valentin. He should not have been convicted of Valentin’s murder. He should not have spent 21 years inside Stateville Correctional Center — missing the childhood, adolescence, and early-adult years of his three kids — before being exonerated and released in 2011.

Over a tense three and a half weeks, the attorneys in this high-stakes civil trial will not dispute any of that. Just about everything else, though, is fair game as Loevy and his colleagues try, as they’ve done successfully many times before, to win millions of dollars in compensation from the city and police defendants. Loevy has already won more than $100 million in civil trial verdicts for wrongful conviction and police misconduct cases against the city (see “Loevy’s Big Wins,” below), including that of a previous Guevara exoneree, Juan Johnson, who was awarded $21 million in 2009. Loevy counts more than a dozen other Guevara exonerees as clients — a lineup of potential and ongoing lawsuits that could become a fiscal nightmare for the city, rivaling the more than $100 million paid in police torture cases involving disgraced former Chicago police commander Jon Burge. Loevy’s victories are celebrated by civil rights activists but are anathema to the financially challenged city.

A lot of cops have strong feelings about Jon Loevy, and the Rivera trial won’t do anything to endear him to them, even as Loevy stresses in his opening argument that the police have a tough job and this case is not against the department. “All we’re saying is people should be accountable for their mistakes,” Loevy tells the jury. “One of the things you have to decide in this case is how to make Jacques whole.”

The task before Loevy and his co-counsel, MacArthur Justice Center executive director Locke Bowman, will not be to prove their client’s innocence — Rivera already received a certificate attesting to that from a Cook County Circuit Court judge in 2012 — but rather to convince the two men and nine women of this federal jury (a 12th juror dropped out) that Rivera’s ordeal was the defendants’ fault and that they owe him considerable damages for those 21 lost years.

How Loevy and his team will do this essentially comes down to storytelling. Loevy likens himself to the director of a play, tasked with crafting a coherent, persuasive narrative from the testimony of both friendly and hostile witnesses and from the content of hundreds of files and depositions. Although Bowman describes Loevy as “one of the most intellectually effective cross-examiners I’ve ever witnessed,” he says his co-counsel’s greatest strength may be his ability to distill complicated information into a coherent version of events that a jury believes.

Loevy puts it this way: “It’s got to have a beginning, middle, and end. It’s got to make sense. It’s got to keep people’s attention.”

Civil rights law, by and large, was not considered a lucrative practice until Loevy started winning multimillion-dollar verdicts. Way more people in prison claim to be innocent than actually are, and few of those who are wrongly incarcerated have the resources to do much about their predicament. Seeking justice for such folks has long been the realm of nonprofit groups, such as Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions and the New York City–based Innocence Project.

“The civil rights practice has historically attracted people not driven by money but by the social justice paradigm,” Bowman says. “Civil rights lawyers, to paint with a broad brush, tended to be more wonky, less flashy. Jon’s not wonky — or flashy — yet remarkably charismatic in court.”

He’s also managed to make a lot more money than your typical civil rights lawyer, not that Loevy sees that point as diminishing the righteousness of his practice. “There are a lot of nonprofits doing really good, important work, and they’re trying to make the world better,” Loevy explains over an outdoor taco lunch a few blocks from his office. “My firm is a for-profit business. So what we’ve done is aligned taking cases that are going to make more justice with a financial profit motive. And it’s working.”

Loevy prefers to take cases to trial rather than to settle. And he tends to win. At one point, Loevy says, he was on the right side of 23 straight verdicts. His love of pushing his chips all in, he says, springs from a lineage of professional gamblers in Kentucky. “Every bet, if the odds favor you, you should take it.”

“He accepts risk like almost nobody I’ve seen before,” says Loevy’s wife, Danielle, who met him when applying for an internship in Chicago with Milton Shadur, a federal judge for whom Jon was clerking. Loevy & Loevy works strictly on contingency, collecting money only when a defendant does; the firm’s cut varies from case to case but tends to fall between 33 and 40 percent, Loevy says. He estimates that the firm spent $250,000 to $500,000 preparing Rivera’s case, including paying for the time of expert witnesses, plus millions of dollars’ worth of lawyer hours — money the firm will never recoup unless it wins. “You lose, you lose it all,” Loevy says. “It’s not for the faint of heart.”

For Loevy, a state champion debater while at Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, the risk taking began after graduating from Columbia Law School and doing his clerkship. He spent his version of a gap year traveling the world, primarily around Central America, Asia, and the Middle East — a trip that, he says, opened his eyes to how justice works and doesn’t work away from the United States. “If you live in other parts of the world and people experience deprivations of their civil rights, too bad, so sad,” Loevy says. “Here you can go to court and have 12 citizens decide if you were mistreated by these public officials. That’s really a wonderful thing that nobody should take for granted.”

Upon his return, he worked at Sidley Austin, one of the city’s high-powered firms, dealing with “big corporate clients fighting big cases involving a lot of money.” Although the experience was good training, he says, “I knew very quickly that it wasn’t for me.” Loevy left after about a year and a half to start his own civil-rights-focused firm with his wife and father, at first working out of his Lake View garden apartment. His early Loevy & Loevy cases involved employment discrimination and complaints about police treatment, but he soon realized that without the cachet of a big law firm, he was viewed with little deference by opposing lawyers and judges. “People treat you like you don’t have a clue and why should they even be talking to you,” Loevy says. “So you’ve got to figure out how to win.”

Sotos, who opposed Loevy multiple times before the Rivera trial, took notice of him in those early days. “He didn’t always have the best cases or the best facts, but he would pursue them with the same kind of relentlessness even then. If you do that with enough cases, you’re going to start to get results.”

The breakthrough came in 1999, when Loevy represented Joseph Regalado, who was paralyzed after, he claimed, police beat him in an alley. Arthur Loevy recalls that other firms had declined to take the case because “the young man had a bit of a past, and police officers told what to them sounded like a credible story” but his son “proved to a jury’s satisfaction that it was not.”

That jury came back with a $28 million verdict, at the time the largest civil rights award against the city for an individual. With that surge of money and publicity, Loevy was able to hire more lawyers. More victories soon followed.

 

This article was originally published by Chicago magazine. Read more here.