A federal jury Tuesday found no wrongdoing on behalf of city or county officials in the case of a former El Rukn gang member who claimed he was framed in an infamous 1984 double murder that sent him to death row.
Attorneys for Nathson Fields had argued that Chicago police and Cook County prosecutors had conspired to pin the unsolved slayings of two El Rukn rivals on him, including burying a “street file” that could have helped Fields’ defense.
The jury, however, found a lone police former detective -- Sgt. David O'Callaghan -- liable for violating Fields' due process rights to a fair trial during the original investigation.
According to trial testimony, O’Callaghan coached witnesses to point out Fields in lineups as the man they saw running from the scene of the murders, even though the gunmen wore ski masks.
The same federal jury will now decide how much in damages to award to Fields for the nearly 18 years he spent in prison.
In testimony Tuesday on damages, Fields said he “found it hard to believe” when he was first being processed into death row at the Pontiac penitentiary and saw the faces of other doomed men looking at him. He said he laid awake at night listening to other prisoners who had “lost their minds,” screaming “like something horrible was happening to them.”
O’Callaghan’s attorney, Daniel Noland, told jurors Tuesday that there was still compelling evidence that Fields committed the double murder.
According to trial testimony, Chicago police purportedly discovered Fields’ street file in 2010 in a filing cabinet at the detective headquarters and sent a copy to city lawyers, who in turn handed it over to Fields' attorneys the next year.
The outdated, yellow-green cabinet -- the subject of a front-page Tribune story earlier this month – was wheeled into U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly's courtroom on a dolly last week so the jury could get a look at it. One by one, the cabinet's five drawers were opened, revealing hundreds of homicide files dating from 1944 to 1985 crammed inside, some more than an inch thick and bursting with what appeared to be notes and papers.
Fields' legal saga began in 1986 when Cook County Judge Thomas Maloney convicted him and a co-defendant in the slayings. Maloney himself was later convicted of pocketing $10,000 to fix the verdict, only to return the money in the midst of the trial when he suspected the FBI was onto the bribe. Fields was eventually acquitted in a retrial in 2009.
To avoid testimony that would prejudice the jury, Kennelly allowed only limited information about the infamous El Rukn investigations and barred any mention terrorism links of gang leader Jeff Fort, who is serving an 80-year sentence at a supermax prison in Colorado.