Judge's injustice is righted—23 years later
A bribe-taking judge sentenced Nathson Fields to die in 1986. In 2009: 'Not guilty'
By Matthew Walberg Tribune reporter
April 9, 2009
The courtroom was silent Wednesday when Circuit Judge Vincent Gaughan acquitted Nathson Fields of murder, a quiet final act for an infamous murder case involving judicial corruption unprecedented even for Chicago's sordid history of graft and greed.
Years ago, a trial judge had taken a $10,000 bribe to fix this very case for Fields, a convicted killer and former El Rukn gang leader.
Wednesday, when Gaughan swiftly acquitted him of the gang hit, the 55-year-old Fields slowly walked over to his family, hugging his brother, Nathaniel, whose tears streamed down his cheeks.
"I love you so much," Nathaniel Fields said as he clasped his brother in a bear hug. "Damn!"
The result was starkly different from 1986 when Fields first went on trial for the double murder.
Judge Thomas J. Maloney, a tough former boxer with a reputation as a law-and-order advocate during 13 years in Criminal Court, pocketed a $10,000 bribe to acquit Fields and a co-defendant. But during the trial, Maloney sensed authorities were onto the fix and handed the bribe money back to a corrupt lawyer at a side door to his courtroom, federal prosecutors contended. The judge then convicted Fields and co-defendant Earl Hawkins of both murders and sentenced them to death.
Maloney was convicted and served more than a dozen years in prison for fixing three murder trials in all, but he died at 83 last October a few months after his release from prison, still defiant in his claims of innocence.
His 1993 guilty verdict grew out of a federal sting code-named Operation Greylord that led to the conviction of 15 corrupt judges, but Maloney's crimes were unprecedented. He is the only Cook County judge ever convicted of rigging murder cases.
After Maloney's conviction, Fields was granted a new trial in 1998, but he remained incarcerated until another former Death Row inmate, Aaron Patterson, bailed him out in 2003. Fields spent nearly two decades behind bars, including more than 11 years on Death Row.
In recent years, the case against Fields has languished in the courts. His retrial came more than a decade after his first conviction was overturned because of Maloney's corruption.
Prosecutors wanted to put on testimony of Fields' alleged involvement in Maloney's bribery, but Gaughan blocked that evidence, prompting a lengthy, unsuccessful appeal by prosecutors.
In another key development, Hawkins flipped on his former El Rukn cohort, agreeing to testify against Fields in exchange for a plea to a lesser crime.
The two murder victims—Jerome "Fuddy" Smith and Talman Hickman, both reputed members of the Black Gangster Disciples' Goon Squad—were gunned down in 1984 outside a public housing development in the 700 block of East 39th Street.
Fields had already finished serving about a dozen years in prison for an unrelated murder conviction when the double slaying occurred.
The bench trial before Gaughan began a quarter century later—this February—and was held off-and-on since then with lengthy breaks. After listening to closing arguments Wednesday, the judge immediately issued his verdict from the bench.
He said he found Hawkins, the state's key witness, unbelievable.
During the trial, Fields' attorneys hammered at Hawkins for once admitting he would say anything to get off Death Row. But Gaughan didn't hold that against Hawkins, saying that only "Mother Teresa and a few other people would say they wouldn't lie to get off of Death Row."
More important to Gaughan was Hawkins' admission to his involvement in the murders of 15 to 20 people during his days as a general in the powerful El Rukn street gang.
"If someone has such disregard for human life, what regard will he have for his oath?" Gaughan said. "I find him incredible."
Prosecutors declined to comment after the verdict, but Fields talked about his future plans. He said he hopes to start a construction company with Patterson, despite the fact that Patterson is serving a 30-year sentence in federal prison for gun and drug convictions.
"I feel like my prayers have been answered," Fields said. "It's been 24 years of this ordeal for my family and my friends, and now with it coming to an end, it's like a dream come true."
Fields said he may go on a vacation. "Somewhere on the West Coast," he said. "I've never seen an ocean, never seen any mountains. I'm kind of behind on that kind of stuff."
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