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Illinois: Exonerated Prisoner Calls $80,000 Award a Travesty, Retrial Ordered

Nathson E. Fields spent 18 years in prison due to a conveniently “lost” file that would have cleared him. Fields was a member of the El Rukn street gang when he was convicted of a double homicide in 1986. After a dozen years on death row and another six in general population, he was granted a retrial and cleared in 2009, then filed a wrongful conviction suit.

On April 28, 1984, at about 10:15 a.m., Talman Hickman and Jerome “Fuddy” Smith were shot to death on Chicago’s East 39th Street. Over 100 witnesses were interviewed, including a woman who described two black men with a “light complexion” fleeing the crime scene. Both wore ski masks but appeared to be in their “early 20s.” Fields had a dark complexion, was 30 years old and did not fit the description given to detectives.

Fields’ “street file” was kept by Chicago detective David O’Callaghan. Defense attorneys requested the file during Fields’ trial but prosecutors and police officers denied its existence; hiding street files was common practice in the Chicago Police Department. Years after his conviction, Fields’ file was found buried in a cabinet with cold cases dating back to 1944.

In 1985, El Rukn gang members Earl Hawkins and Anthony Sumner were arrested for a separate double murder. Upon their capture, Sumner offered testimony implicating Fields in the 1984 shootings in exchange for immunity.

Detective O’Callaghan and officers Thomas Richardson and Steven Castro coerced El Rukn gang members Randy Langston and Gerald Morris into falsely identifying Fields from a photo line-up. In one case, O’Callaghan simply showed the witness a photo array and told him who to pick by pointing at Fields.

In June 1986, Fields and his co-defendant, Earl Hawkins, went to trial before Judge Thomas J. Maloney. Prosecutors accused them of being the masked shooters and alleged a third defendant drove the getaway car.

It was later discovered that before the trial, Hawkins’ attorney had paid Judge Maloney $10,000 to ensure his client would not be found guilty. Maloney returned the bribe money after learning he was under investigation. Federal investigators had secretly bugged the judge’s chambers and obtained evidence that he was corrupt, but never bothered to tell Fields’ lawyer.

At the death penalty phase of the trial, Langston recanted his testimony and admitted that O’Callaghan had told him to select Fields out of a photo line-up. Nevertheless, the jury sentenced Fields and Hawkins to death, and Judge Maloney affirmed the sentences.

In 1991, in an effort to save himself from the death penalty, Anthony Sumner began to work with federal prosecutors to take down the El Rukn gang. He admitted that he had fabricated his testimony implicating Fields, and in January 1992 signed a statement to that effect for the Chicago Police Department and the State’s Attorney’s Office. Still, Fields was left to languish on death row.

Judge Maloney was found guilty of conspiracy, racketeering, extortion and obstructing justice in April 1993. More than three years later Fields was granted post-conviction relief by the Cook County Circuit Court, “on the grounds that the trial judge, Thomas Maloney, acted as a corrupt jurist during Fields’ trial, thereby depriving Fields of due process of law.” [See: PLN, Nov. 2006, p.21].

For thirteen more years, the State’s Attorney’s Office worked relentlessly to fabricate another case against Fields. When Hawkins agreed to testify for the prosecution in exchange for being taken off death row, prosecutors went so far as to change their original version of the murders to accommodate the new testimony, even though it contradicted eyewitness accounts from the first trial.

But the court wasn’t fooled. On April 8, 2009, Cook County Circuit Judge Vincent M. Gaughan found Fields not guilty and called the state’s witness “... highly suspect, and unworthy of belief.”

In October 2010, after obtaining a certificate of innocence, Fields filed suit against the City of Chicago, a state prosecutor and three police officials, including Detective O’Callaghan, alleging due process violations, conspiracy, malicious prosecution and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Testimony offered at trial showed how the police had doctored lineups and backdated incriminating statements in order to convict Fields; evidence also included the “street file” that prosecutors and police officers had insisted didn’t exist. Fields’ attorneys asked the jury to consider an award of $1 million for each year he was imprisoned.

Although the jurors concluded that O’Callaghan had deprived Fields of his due process rights, they awarded just $80,000 in damages; the jury found in favor of the other defendants. Fields called the paltry award a travesty of justice.

Meanwhile, Hawkins was released on parole in September 2014, just a few months after testifying for the defendants at the trial in Fields’ lawsuit. He had received recommendations for parole from an Assistant U.S. Attorney and two police officials named as defendants in Fields’ suit.

“They knew Mr. Fields was innocent,” stated his lead attorney, H. Candace Gorman. “That’s why they had to pay people off to testify against him.”

Gorman filed a motion for a new trial, which was granted on April 7, 2015 as to both liability and damages on all of Fields’ claims.

On November 6, 2015 the district court granted a motion for sanctions against the defendants and ordered them to pay $68,618 in Fields’ attorney fees and costs. The court found that O’Callaghan had presented testimony at trial that “ran afoul of a pretrial in limine ruling” which “excluded certain evidence regarding criminal conduct by and criminal prosecutions of members of the El Rukn street gang that did not involve Fields.” The prohibited testimony resulted in a mistrial.

Fields’ new trial on liability and damages against O’Callahan and the other defendants is scheduled to begin on November 7, 2016. See: Fields v. City of Chicago, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 1:10-cv-01168.

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Related legal case

Fields v. City of Chicago