Nathson Fields’ road to justice

April 16, 2009

Noreen McNulty reports on former Illinois death row prisoner Nathson Fields' recent acquittal on capital charges--and his fight against one of Illinois' most corrupt judges.

AFTER NEARLY a quarter of a century of injustice at the hands of the first judge ever to go to federal prison for accepting bribes in capital cases, former Illinois death row prisoner Nathson Fields was acquitted of capital murder charges on April 8.

Fields was convicted and sentenced to death in 1985 by Cook County Judge Thomas Maloney for his alleged role in a gang-related double murder. During Fields' trial, Maloney accepted a bribe from the lawyer of Fields' codefendant. Maloney became nervous that the FBI was watching the case closely, so he returned the bribe, and then sentenced both Fields and his codefendant to death.

An FBI investigation into the bribe and other charges led to Maloney's conviction in 1993. He was sentenced to 15 years. Maloney died last year, a few months after his release from prison. Yet despite Maloney's crime, Fields' conviction and death sentence weren't called into question.

"No one told me about Maloney," Fields said in an interview. "The state knew all about it, and I did not get a new trial. The state was still going for my execution. To me, this is an ethics violation."

Nathson Fields
Nathson Fields

Fields spent a total of 18 years in jail or prison for a crime he did not commit, including a total of 11 years on death row. Fields recalled that during his time on death row, 11 men were executed. "These were 11 men who I knew, played basketball with and walked past my cell to their execution," he said. "You never forget that."

Fields points to his faith in God, family support and the support of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty and other supporters as carrying him through the long ordeal. "They kept me strong," he said. "I knew I wasn't alone in the fight."

Fields faced a long rode to his acquittal. In 1996, he won a new trial. Incredibly, though, he had to wait more than 11 years for his retrial to start due to a series of appeals by the prosecution. The court denied two filings to dismiss the case because of violations of the Speedy Trial Act.

Fortunately for Fields, these years weren't all spent in jail. In 1998, his bond was set at $1 million. In May 2003, former Illinois death row prisoner Aaron Patterson posted bond for him, and Fields was released from Cook County Jail.

The case against Fields was weak, with no physical evidence. Witnesses who testified against him recanted their testimony after the trial, only to change it again later. Most recently, Fields' codefendant agreed to testify against Fields in exchange for a lesser sentence. As Fields said, "They got on the stand, and they all crumbled. They were lying."

During the initial investigation, police pointed out Fields to witnesses in the police lineup. One witness, who isn't in the initial police report from the scene, claimed he was at the scene--yet police didn't interview him until 13 months later.

On April 8, Circuit Court Judge Vincent Gaughan dismissed the witness and codefendant testimony as unreliable and acquitted Fields. Fields is the 19th person in Illinois to be exonerated from death row since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

"The death penalty should be completely abolished in Illinois and the United States," Fields said. "One reason: human fallacy. As long as we have greedy and corrupt people like Maloney, we will put innocent people to death."

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