Ex-Death Row inmate: Police ‘street files’ prove I was framed
BY KIM JANSSEN Federal Courts Reporter April 10, 2014 7:14PM
Nathson Fields, a former Death Row inmate wants an investigation after a jury awarded him only $80,000. He spent 18 years in prison before being cleared of a double murder. | Rummana Hussain/Sun-Times
Updated: April 11, 2014 7:31AM
For the fourth time in his 60-year life, Nathson Fields squared off in a trial court Thursday against the Chicago cops who put him on Death Row.
This time, the roles were reversed.
This time, the former high-ranking member of the El Rukn street gang has already been cleared of the 1984 double murder for which he was sentenced to death.
And this time — for the first time — the attorneys representing him in his lawsuit against the City of Chicago and the Cook County State’s Attorney finally have the long-missing Chicago Police “street file” they say proves he was framed.
“Discovered” in 2010 inside a filing cabinet in the dingy basement of a South Side police station, the file’s existence was denied by police and prosecutors for 26 years, 17 of which Fields spent in prison.
Now it’s the key evidence Fields hopes will convince a federal jury that he was deliberately set up by former Chicago Police Sgt. David O’Callaghan, former Detective Daniel Brannigan, current police Cmdr. Joseph Murphy and former Assistant State’s Attorney Lawrence Wharrie.
“This file was hidden on purpose,” Field’s attorney Candace Gorman said as she brandished a copy of the 130-page file of detective’s notes Thursday morning during opening statements at the start of the civil rights trial. It was deliberately hidden, she said, in a room packed with 20 filing cabinets from supposedly “unsolved” cases going back as far as 1944 “because it didn’t have anything to do with Nate . . . it had real motives and real witnesses” implicating other men.
Without access to that evidence, Fields was convicted of the murders of Jerome “Fuddy” Smith and Talman Hickman and sentenced to death in 1986, granted a retrial when it was discovered the dirty judge at his first trial had accepted a bribe, only to be reconvicted in 1998, before he was finally cleared at a third trial in 2009.
But attorneys for the city still maintain that Fields is guilty and shouldn’t get a cent.
Though city attorney Daniel Noland agreed the file “should have been produced to Mr. Fields” decades ago, he claimed “there is nothing in this file worth hiding,” describing it as being packed with “anonymous tips and dead-end leads.”
“Sloppy filing” didn’t mean Fields was innocent, or that he’d been framed, Noland argued, dismissing Fields’ claims that police and prosecutors coerced witnesses who later recanted testimony that falsely fingered Fields for Smith and Hickman’s murders and a second double murder.
Fields “is the only person who will come into this courtroom and tell you he didn’t commit the murders,” Noland said, alleging Fields was in on the plot to bribe the judge at his first trial in 1986.
The case is expected to shine a light on Chicago Police’s controversial past use of “street files” — detectives’ hand-written crime scene and interview notes that historically were not turned over to defense attorneys.
The practice of placing police officers handwritten notes in a separate undisclosed “street file” was outlawed in 1983 by the city, but Fields’ attorneys suggested there could be more cases where police and prosecutors have falsely denied street files containing exculpatory evidence exist.
“These file cabinets have never been inventoried,” Gorman told jurors as she showed them a photo of the 20 filing cabinets in the basement at the 51st and Wentworth police station. “They can’t even say what is in there.”
Thursday was the court’s second attempt to try the case. Last month, the first attempt ended in a mistrial when one of the defendants, O’Callaghan, violated a court order by referring to “terrorism cases” during his testimony.
U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly found that reference to El Rukn gang leader Jeff Fort’s 1987 conviction for domestic terrorism could have unfairly prejudiced the jury against Fields.
He has yet to rule on a request by Fields’ attorneys that he sanction the city’s attorneys for what Fields’ attorneys allege was a deliberate attempt to sabotage the case.