Former gang member wins $22 million in lawsuit

SUN-TIMES MEDIA WIRE - A federal jury has awarded $22 million to former El Rukn gang member Nathson Fields in his lawsuit over wrongful prosecution.

Fields broke down crying as the verdict was announced Thursday afternoon, and he continued to wipe away tears as he left a federal courtroom.

The verdict is a far cry from the $80,000 awarded to Fields when he took his lawsuit to trial in 2014, which Fields called a “travesty” at the time. However, the release of another notorious El Rukn, months after he testified against Fields, prompted a federal judge to call for a do-over.

This time, it was counsel for one of the defendant officers, David O’Callaghan, who left the courtroom steaming. Moments after the verdict was read, lawyer Shelly Kulwin told a reporter he had just recently lost faith in the electoral process.

“Today I lost all my faith in the judicial system,” Kulwin said.

The jury also awarded Fields $30,000 from O’Callaghan and $10,000 from another defendant, Joseph Murphy. It found that O’Callaghan and Murphy violated Fields’ due process rights, and that the violation was a result of a Chicago policy or widespread practice. It also made an intentional infliction of emotional distress finding against O’Callaghan.

Fields, a former high-ranking member of the El Rukn street gang, spent 18 years behind bars, including 12 on Death Row, before he was cleared at a 2009 retrial for the 1984 murders of Talman Hickman and Jerome “Fuddy” Smith, who were shot to death in the 700 block of East 39th.

It was revealed in the meantime that Cook County Judge Thomas Maloney, who presided over Fields’ original 1986 trial, took a $10,000 bribe only to return it when he began to suspect the feds were watching. An attorney for Fields’ co-defendant, Earl Hawkins, had passed the bribe to the judge.

After Fields was cleared, a long-missing police file connected to his case was “discovered,” buried in an old filing cabinet in the basement of a South Side police station. For years, police and prosecutors denied it existed. But Fields’ lawyers believe it was hidden on purpose because it held evidence that might have cleared their client far sooner.

Now, for the last month, jurors have listened to the evidence as Fields took his lawsuit to trial for a third time. The first attempt ended with a mistrial. The second trial in 2014 ended with a meager $80,000 judgment in Fields’ favor. But U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly ordered a new trial after Hawkins, a fellow high-ranking El Rukn, suddenly became a free man months after testifying for the city that Fields was indeed guilty.

Hawkins had told jurors he had no deal with authorities and did not expect to get out of prison until 2026. When he took the stand this time around, Hawkins insisted “there wasn’t nothing in it” for him when he testified for the city in 2014.

However, prosecutors did convince a federal judge to knock a significant amount of prison time off the sentence of another notorious El Rukn killer, Derrick Kees, in exchange for his testimony this fall. Kees testified late last month that he had a conversation with Fields and Hawkins in which Fields implicated himself in the killings.

Kees once faced as many as 99 years in federal prison for racketeering on top of a state murder sentence of 55 years. However, his new sentencing break puts him on track to be released in November 2021. Fields’ attorneys fear he could even be released as early as next year.

“They’re letting serial killers out of prison to tell their story,” Fields attorney Jon Loevy said during closing arguments.