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“End This Madness!” Innocence on Death Row: An Interview with Nathson Fields

By Kelly Snow
November 29, 2011

In 1986, Nathson Fields and a fellow leader of Chicago-area gang El Rukn were convicted and sentenced to death by Cook County Judge Thomas Maloney.  After spending over ten years on death row, Fields was granted a new trial when it was discovered that Judge Maloney had accepted a $10,000 bribe from a corrupt lawyer to acquit both defendants.  Having learned of an FBI investigation into the judicial corruption, Maloney returned the money, found both defendants guilty, and sentenced them to death.

In Fields’ retrial, his co-defendant pled guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for testimony against him.  However, presiding Judge Vincent Gaughan questioned the truth of the new testimony and acquitted Fields of all charges.  Having maintained his innocence throughout each of the 20 years he spent behind bars, Fields was finally released in 2009.  He now lives in the Chicago area and works with Witness to Innocence, traveling around the country and speaking out against capital punishment in the United States.

Mr. Fields took a few minutes to sit down and share his experience.

Kelly Snow:  You maintained your innocence from the moment of your arrest.  What was it like in 1986 when your conviction was handed down and you heard your sentence?  How did that feel?

Nathson Fields:  I was pretty much devastated.  It was devastating.  I watched my girlfriend – she was pregnant with my daughter at the time I was arrested - I watched her jump up and run out of the courtroom screaming and crying.  I watched my mother start crying in the courtroom.  It was hard for me to even look over there, and I just felt like this was some sort of nightmare dream that was happening.  I felt like, “I got to wake up in a minute because this can't be happening.”  I did not do these crimes.  How did this judge find me guilty on that evidence?  I was in shock.

KS:  In terms of the normal progression of the investigation, what kinds of procedural flaws or mistakes did you see on the part of the police or prosecutors that ultimately led to this?

NF:  One thing was the eyewitness identification lineup and how the police manipulated the lineup.  I was just depicted in a certain kind of way where the witnesses would know to point me out.  When I first was arrested, the police would tell me, “Go in that room” - they never told me what I was there for - “Go in that room,” and I would walk in that room.  When I walked up, there was somebody laying on a gurney who had been seriously hurt. The person's face was swollen up. I believe they had been shot and I could see them through the glass, but you are really not supposed to be able to see them but in this room. I don't know how it happened.  After I came out of that room a little while later, the cops came back and said “Go in that room.  Just open the door. Just go in there.”  I walk in and there was another person that was hurt.  What they were sending me through was a sure line up which is pretty much illegal, where they have told witnesses or victims that, “Hey, we think we got the guy - just take a look.” Then here I came walking out the door, you know. That was declared illegal by the United States Supreme Court.  It was supposed to be a full lineup with individuals about your height, your complexion, same build - so that was one thing that was going badly.  And then it went worse because the cops, they were trying to frame me.  It started off like that because when I was first arrested I was a member of the El Rukn organization.  The El Rukn organization was considered to be a street gang or involved with crime.  That's part true and part not true.  But that's to the side.  That was the crux of them picking me up - they were putting cases on members of the El Rukn.  They were just trying to get them off the street.  And they didn't care what cases they were putting on the guys, and so that's how it started. 

They put me in a lineup and they displayed me with a short sleeve shirt.  I was the only person in the lineup with a short sleeve shirt.  I have pictures of this in the car – articles.  The significance of that was while I was in the lineup with short sleeved shirt I had a tattoo on my left arm depicting me as a member of the El Rukn organization.   So the individuals who were [observing] the lineup, they were a part of a rival group or gang.  And so, by having me with a short sleeve shirt with my sleeve up saying I am an El Rukn, the individuals that are a part of a rival group they knew what was going to happen.  I was going to get picked out.  And that is what happened. 

So at my trial…we asked to see this photograph of the lineup [and] we asked to see what was the composition of the lineup so we could see if everybody was uniform, was everybody my height, my size, whatever.  [The police] said they didn't inventory the lineup.  That's the requirement of police when they make an arrest.  They inventory everything pertaining to the case, the lineups, everything.  And so they said they never inventoried the lineup. When I did get the new trial and came back for my second trial the new prosecutor didn't know that the first one didn't give me the lineup photos.  So they gave them to me and I am like, “Whoa, here it is!”  It had one cop holding my sleeve up to the witnesses as if saying, “This is the one.” And then we had the factual element that the lineup was suggestive because of my tattoo. That was one clear thing that happened that led to me getting pointed out.  Although I feel like the police had already told them something before they got into the lineup.  But that is one glaring thing that led to everything happening to me. 

Later on another individual had told the police that I was involved in the crime.  He was the person I had put out of a building that I was managing, for not paying his rent.  Later on they gave him a deal to drop a double murder against him [and] in return they were going to give him five years probation to testify that I told him I was involved in the crime, and about other cases that he felt El Rukn was involved in.  Jumping ahead again, this particular witness, later on while I was on death row, he recanted and told the federal government and the state's attorney that he had lied against me when he said that I was involved and that he lied because he didn't like me.  I had put him out of the building for not paying rent.  And I had my attorney ask him that when he testified, he said that's not why he said I was involved.  So they let him off with five years probation, dropped the double murder and everything.  He pleaded guilty to a drug charge.  So he got a sweetheart deal but their objective was just to lock up El Rukn and at that time I happened to be one.  It didn't matter to them that I was innocent. 

The other thing was the judge - that much you know about – Maloney.  Since I have been exonerated there are numerous other things we have discovered because I have a massive lawsuit pending against the cops and the prosecutors who framed me.  And it is the largest lawsuit in Illinois history for unlawful conviction.  And what makes it even more interesting is that I represented myself on the lawsuit.  And that has never been done in the history of the United States, where a death row prisoner, exonerated [and] released, filed his own lawsuit without an attorney.  Then on top of that - just citing a few things - I won my own certificate of innocence.  A certificate of innocence is a document that says legally you are not guilty.  It is a document that legally says that you should not even have been on trial on the case. And so I represented myself at the certificate of innocence hearing against the very prosecutors who tried to send me back to death row, and I won, and so I exonerated myself.  That is the first time, again, that has ever happened in Illinois' history, in U.S. history.  At this point, my lawsuit is still pending.  It is right at the point where it could come to an end.  It is almost down to any week now because we have gotten the things that we need.  All the stuff they withheld - the motion to compel. We have got street files that they never gave [describing] that they had arrested five individuals.  These individuals were placed in a lineup [and] another individual told the police the day before it happened that it was going to happen that night or the next morning.  And they told the police who it was they heard saying they were going to do it.  This guy even said he heard the guy say, “We have the jump suits, we got the ski masks and we got the guns. The victim won't last through the night.”  A person told the police that - they would never let me see the name.  They would never let me see the name of the person who said that, so clearly they weren't looking for the truth in charging me.  I was arrested thirteen months after the crime happened - on one eyewitness identification that happened over 150 feet away.  A 15-year old kid playing baseball in the field - the police claimed that he had observed the killing.  And it just happened that this 15-year old person, he was a member of the [rival] group that I was a part of back in those days.  So you got one eyewitness, okay. 

Then you got this other guy who I put out of the building who said he had asked me, “Hey, I heard you had something to do with it." And then I said, "Yeah, it was good exercise".  That's it.  So that was their witness. They had that one eyewitness; he had a cloud of controversy under him because he had a double murder over his head which I also was charged with too.  I was charged with two double murders initially.  And then after they found me guilty on the first double murder, gave me the death penalty, they prosecuted the second one and they never retried.  But lo and behold later on this guy, he recanted.  He told the police and the FBI he was the only one connecting me to the other double murder and so when he recanted, he told the police and the FBI that I had nothing to do with the other double murder.  It was him and my codefendant that had done it.  And he put me on it because I had put him out of the building. 

KS:  What was the quality of your representation in this first trial?

NF:  I feel my representation was good.  I really feel my attorney was good.  I feel he had won the case.  I feel he won the case but it didn't matter because the judge was on the take.  He had accepted bribes from my codefendant’s lawyer.

We had separate attorneys. We didn't have the same attorney.  What they were doing - I didn't know what they were doing.  They pretty much didn't know what we were doing but I wasn't doing nothing like what he was doing, trying to bargain the case off. 

KS:  So there was a unified front of the police officers, the prosecutors, the judge - you don't feel like you were innocent until proven guilty?

NF:  From the very beginning - there is no question.  That's why they never asked me at the station, “Did you actually do it?”  They never asked me anything.  I didn't even know what I was tried for.  I did not know what I was being arrested for until I went to an arraignment.  They kept me at the station 72 hours.  When I went for the arraignment the judge read off the charges.  He read off two double murders - I almost fainted.  I almost fainted.  I was just constantly, from that point on, thinking that I was going to wake up one day.  And every time I woke up it was just hell on top of hell on death row, watching other guys getting executed, watching guys going insane, guys doing self-mutilation.

KS:  You said 11 individuals were on death row with you over the course of your time?

NF:  Yes.  And there were a couple that were very close friends. 

KS:  Other than complete abolition, if you had the power to make reforms to the process and the system, what would you do differently, in terms of different rules of prosecution or different requirements, etc.?

NF:  One thing that I would suggest truly should be changed is death qualifying the jury, where everybody that is on the jury, they have to be for the death penalty.  I feel that is not a cross section of the community.  Everybody in the neighborhood is not for the death penalty.  So why would we take only a certain group of people to make that decision?  I disagree with that. I feel that's bad law, you know? It's just the opposite.  It's like, if there are more people for the death penalty to begin with; it's more apt that these people would be more [willing] to give it out than somebody that's like, "Hold it! I hold that life is true and blue.  I want to see some facts!”  You know what I am saying?  If you got a person like that and then that's that balancing fact but you got everybody on there just being gung-ho, “We’re all for the death penalty!  We know why we are here!  Let's do it!”  A prosecutor can make a case for all of them:  “Hey, you know why you are on the jury.  You have been death qualified.  All of you said you can do it, you know what you are here for.  You did - now let's do it.”  And before you know it they be done suckered in to sign on to something that could be a nightmare for someone and their family.  So, that is one thing that I would change. 

Another: I would stop making deals for one individual in a capital murder case to testify on his codefendants so that he could go on and get a lesser sentence.  That is being completely manipulated by prosecutors, completely.  We have found in Illinois where individual codefendants will testify against their codefendants to save their life.  And they be lying.  We have found proof of that - a man will lie to save his life.  And to put a human being in that situation [where] you will live or he will die if you lie if you say he did it.  You are not saying, “You live, he dies if you tell the truth.”  They are not saying that.  “We need you to finger him.” And that's it.  That is how they lay it down.  Just like that.  You finger him, you live.  We will work a deal out for you to get you some time, but he is going to die.  If you don't do it you are going to die too.  And lo and behold, if that person don't do it they are going to bring this same offer to the other guy.  You know what I am saying?  I think “Let's make a deal” should not apply in a capital trial where a person could lose their life and the very witness, you know what I am saying, is bargaining to save his own life.  That is too much for a human being to bear. 

That is too much. You may have a wife and kids, and the guy weighs it out: “Well, man, they are about to take me away from my wife and kids for something I didn't do, or something he may have done.”  We don't know but we do know one thing: human nature is going to kick in.  That man is going to want to be with his wife and kids, so [to] put him in that situation with all that pressure on his head - it is never going to lead to the truth. There] is always room for that to be manipulated because that person you gave that deal to, he wants to go home, he wants to get out.  You said, “You can go, just point the finger on him.”  A person will lie to do that.  They will lie and that is what happened in my case when this guy said I was involved so he could get a double murder off his back and then later on he comes clean while I am on death row.  “He didn't do it.” 

But you can't take back the hands of time.  All this drama I went through…My mother died while I was on death row.  My daughter, who I never got a chance to carry on my back or hold on my shoulders, over time my daughter, I am told, she was wary about mentioning my name.  And father's day coming around, and the teacher asked, “What did you do for your father?  What did you do for your father?”  And my daughter would have to walk out the class.  All of that stuff people don't understand or know about.  But this is what happens when you deal with that human factor.  So that is another thing I would like to see changed.  In capital cases, police should go out there and do their work.  Do your job and investigate the case.  Don't try to cut corners and say, “Hey, I am going to get somebody to save you.”  No, don't cut no corners.  Go out there and do hard police work and figure it out.  

KS:  It took years before you were granted a second trial.  What was your experience like in that second trial, in terms of your representation and the bias of the court?

NF:  Well first of all, I was weary because at the last trial I didn't know what had happened.  I knew I was innocent.  My thing is: Why did he find me guilty?  My first thought was I thought the judge was a racist because I couldn't find no other reason. So why did he find me guilty when I had four high school students testify that I couldn't have been there?  Because the persons who done it wore ski masks throughout, so it was all of them against this one person and all of them were standing with this one person who pointed me out.  And then, like I said, I was not put in the lineup until thirteen months later.  Now tell me somebody that can remember something that long, from that distance, when other people say, they had ski masks on that they never took off.  This one kid says the guy that shot the victims stood there for 15 to 20 seconds.  Raised their masks and just stood there.  So, my lawyer asked, “Why did they do that?”  I don't know.  And even the judge thought, “Oh wait, you are saying that after they shot the victims they raised their masks up and stood there for 15 to 20 seconds?” And the witness said, "Yes.” Why were they doing that?  And the witness said, "I don't know.”

But I suspect the police told the witness to say it.  I honestly suspect, because my lawyer argued: “Your honor, you know you never heard a story like that where a person wears a mask and then removes the mask after the shooting, and stands over the victims in broad daylight for 15 to 20 seconds on a street that is like this, cars going like this.  It just don't happen in Chicago.”  So what they were doing - they probably felt, the police - we can't get a conviction unless we get the mask off whoever it was.  And I really feel they told this witness to just say they took them off. 

Something in Chicago, we had a cop that would torture guys into confessing. He tortured numerous individuals.  Putting typewriter covers over their heads, [hitting] them on the head with the phone books while the typewriter cover was over their head and they were handcuffed to the wall.  I feel like when a person comes to a police station there should be a lawyer that's already on the scene.  You should not have to call this lawyer because to do that, he has to ask permission from the guard. And nothing at the police station comes unconditional - you know what I'm saying.  If you ask the police for anything outside your cell, a phone call, they are looking for something in return.  You do that call, okay, they bring you right out after that.  “Okay, what's going on?  What's the deal?  You want hamburgers at McDonalds?”  They do not have any problem going out and getting you a burger.  They are going to solve the case.  You want a cup of coffee?  All of that.  When you come to the police station you ask for an attorney, I feel that attorney should be right there on the spot.  When the person comes in, the attorney is told what he is charged with.  In that way, that undercuts everything.  And then the lawyer asks the person, “Do you want me present while the police interview you?” There you go.  It undercuts all this browbeating at the police station – just one lawyer at the station.  Everybody comes in that gets to see him before they go in there for all the big stuff.  And then they make the decision. 

KS:  Since your ordeal, Illinois has abolished the death penalty.  What do you think your role was in bringing that about its abolition?   How has your life changed now since exoneration?

NF:  Well, I say my role was being the 19th death row inmate exonerated in Illinois out of 20.  And the way that I was exonerated, and all the things that happened in my case where the judge, was convicted for taking the bribe and sending me to death row and covering it up.  He got 15 years. That has never happened in the United States history.  And then the fact that they upheld my execution on direct appeal. 

The Illinois Supreme Court upheld it - they didn't know the judge was corrupt at that time. Then it went on up to the United States Supreme Court and they sustained it and set my execution date for January 1990.  He wasn't even indicted then.  So just like that.  The human factor.  Just like that.  This judge [who] duped everybody in the system was about to execute me for something I didn't do.  The only thing that saved me was the judge.  They finally indicted [him] and nobody told me that he had took a bribe until after he got indicted. 

KS:  So now you spend your time traveling around the country spreading your story?

NF:  I travel around the country.   I have been on Fox News, radio stations, [and] just left New York last week.  Before that was Austin, Texas.  We marched on the Capitol.  We did a two-mile march, about 400 individuals, 25 [former] death row [inmates], and we marched on Governor Perry's house.   We went to his house and we spoke:  “End this!  End this madness!”   And that what's I intend to continue to do, until the death penalty is no more in the United States.