Jacques Rivera

Jacques Rivera (Photo: Jennifer Linzer)

Jacques Rivera (Photo: Jennifer Linzer)

Erroneous testimony by child witness led to wrongful conviction

In August 1988, 16-year-old Felix Valentin was shot 10 times as he sat in a car parked in an alley on Chicago’s West Side. Eighteen days later, he died from his wounds. A 12-year-old boy who saw the shooting from an alcove told police that he had a “clear view” of the gunman’s face and had seen him playing baseball at Humboldt Park several times that summer. The witness described the shooter as an 18 to 22 year old Hispanic male dressed in a black, who fled the scene in a copper colored car driven by another Hispanic male of the same age. Later that evening, the witness picked out a photo of Jacques Rivera.

Rivera was arrested in September 1988, and tried at a bench trial before Cook County Circuit Court Judge Michael Close on April 5, 1989. The witness, who was 13 at the time of trial, was the state’s only witness who placed Rivera at the scene of the shooting. No physical evidence connected Rivera to the crime. The witness testified that he knew Valentin, who was a friend of his older sister. According to the witness, Valentin’s older brother was a member of the Campbell Boys street gang, which at the time was feuding with two other area gangs, the Latin Kings and the Imperial Gangsters. The witness said that on the day of the murder, he was crossing an alley on the way to a neighborhood video store. He testified that he saw the shooter firing his gun at Valentin as he sat waiting in his car in the alley. The witness testified that he ran to the video store, but when store clerks refused to call the police, he ran back to the alcove and hid. From there he saw the man shoot into the car one last time. After firing the final shot, the shooter turned his head in the direction of the witness, but apparently did not see him, jumped into a car waiting in the middle of the street, and sped away from the scene.

Rivera testified that he had spent the day at home with his family, and that he had never played baseball at the Humboldt Park recreation center. The defense presented testimony from Chicago police officer Craig Letrich that the victim himself identified someone other than Rivera as the shooter. Letrich testified that, as a result of his interview with Valentin the day after the shooting, he showed Valentin a photo album of suspected Imperial Gangsters. Valentin identified José Rodriguez as the shooter whom Officer Letrich arrested, and Phillip Nieves as the driver, who was never apprehended. Rodriguez, however, was released without being charged.

Judge Close found Rivera guilty and sentenced him to 80 years in prison. Rivera lost all of his appeals.

In January 2010, investigators from the Center on Wrongful Convictions located the lone witness, 23 years after his identification of Rivera. In an interview, the witness broke down and told of his misidentification. In a sworn affidavit, the witness said he tried to tell the police and prosecutors before Rivera’s trial that shortly after identifying Rivera, he saw the actual shooter, and that he had wrongfully identified Rivera. According to the witness, the detectives did not believe him and thought he was recanting because he was afraid of gang retaliation. Following his recantation, Jane Raley from the Center on Wrongful Convictions, sought a new trial for Rivera. Cook County Circuit Court Judge Neera Walsh ruled that the witness’s recantation was credible, stating that “the only reason this court sees for [the witness’s] recantation now is a desire to correct a mistake” and ordered a new trial for Rivera. On October 4, 2011, Cook County prosecutors announced that they would nolle pros the case and Walsh told Rivera he was free to go. Later that evening, Rivera was released from the Cook County Jail.