Nathson Fields

Judicial corruption led to both his conviction and exoneration

Nathson Fields and Earl Hawkins, members of a Chicago street gang known as El Rukn, were convicted at a 1986 bench trial before Cook County Circuit Court Judge Thomas J. Maloney of the murders two years earlier of Jerome Smith and Talman Hickman, members of the rival Black Gangster Disciples. Fields and Hawkins requested a jury sentencing hearing. The jury concluded that both men were eligible for the death penalty and Maloney sentenced them accordingly.

A year later, a county prosecutor negotiated a deal under which Hawkins would be removed from death row in exchange for testifying against other gang members in unrelated cases. Fields remained on death row and in 1990 the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously upheld his conviction and sentence. Three years later there was a stunning development: Judge Maloney was convicted on federal charges of, among other things, accepting a $10,000 from a corrupt lawyer named William Swano to acquit Fields and Hawkins of murdering Smith and Hickman. When Maloney learned that he was under investigation by the FBI, he returned to money to Swano and proceeded to convict Fields and Hawkins.

In light of Maloney's conviction, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Vincent Gaughan ordered a new trial for Fields in 1996. While the retrial was pending, two key witnesses in the case recanted. Gerald Morris and Randy Langston had testified at the 1986 trial that they had seen Fields and Hawkins gun down Smith and Hickman outside a public housing project on April 28, 1984. In affidavits provided to defense investigators, Morris and Langston stated that police and prosecutors had coerced them to falsely identify Fields and Hawkins. In fact, according to the affidavits, Morris and Langston had no idea who killed Smith and Hickman because the killers had worn masks.

In light of the recantations, there was no credible case against Fields, who had insisted from the beginning that he was innocent. But rather than dropping the charges prosecutors made a deal with Hawkins under which he would testify against his former co-defendant. Fields remained in custody until 2003 when a close friend, Aaron Patterson, posted $100,000 cash to secure his release on bond. (Like Fields, Patterson was a former El Rukn who had been on death row. He received a pardon based on innocence, qualifying him for compensation under the Illinois Court of Claims Act and enabling his to borrow the $100,000.)

On-going appeals by the prosecution delayed the Fields retrial another six years, but when it finally occurred Judge Gaughan found Hawkins unworthy of belief. On the stand, under cross examination by Fields's lawyer, Jean Maclean Snyder, Hawkins admitted his involvement in at least 15 murders during his El Rukn years. "If someone has such disregard for human life, what regard will he have for his oath?" Gaughan asked rhetorically moments before finding Fields not guilty. "I find him incredible."

— Rob Warden