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Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Back issues
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Prosecutorial Corruption Case Takes a Fatal Hit

CHICAGO (CN) - Two Illinois prosecutors have immunity from claims that they knowingly coerced false testimony to convict a man of two murders, keeping him behind bars for 25 years, the 7th Circuit ruled.

Former street-gang member Nathson Fields was convicted and sentenced to death in 1986 of murdering Talman Hickman and Jerome Smith.

Another member of the gang, Anthony Sumner, testified against Fields under a nonprosecution agreement. But Sumner confessed in 1991 that his testimony had been false. Despite this revelation, Fields remained in prison.

In 1996, Fields was granted a new trial because of evidence that his original co-defendant, Earl Hawkins, had bribed Judge Thomas Maloney to assure his acquittal. Despite the bribe, Hawkins was convicted and sentenced to death. Maloney later returned the money when he realized federal authorities were investigating him.

Maloney, who died in 2008, was brought down in a judicial corruption and convicted of various corruption charges in 1993.

Fields was again convicted at his 1998 retrial. This time, prosecutors introduced testimony from Hawkins that implicated Fields. In exchange for his testimony, Hawkins was purportedly removed from death row. The government's other star witness against Fields, Randy Livingston, later recanted and testified during Fields' sentencing that Chicago police had coerced him to incriminate Fields.

Fields was again retried in 2009 and, 25 years after his ordeal began, he was acquitted and received a certificate of innocence.

Fields then sued Cook County, the City of Chicago, several police officers, and two assistant state's attorneys, Larry Wharrie and David Kelley. The complaint says Wharrie and Kelley solicited the false testimony and knowingly introduced it in Fields' trial, appeal and retrial.

Wharrie and Kelley moved to dismiss the complaint as barred by absolute prosecutorial immunity and Illinois sovereign immunity law. They appealed when U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly said the prosecutors did not merit immunity since they were not acting in their official capacities when the alleged constitutional violations occurred.

The 7th Circuit reversed last week. "Prosecutors enjoy absolute sovereign immunity when performing their prosecutorial functions," Judge Joel Flaum wrote for a three-judge panel. "When investigating a case and gathering evidence, however, prosecutors enjoy only the same qualified immunity granted to police officers."

Such immunity also covers willful violations of constitutional rights.

"Subjecting prosecutors to financial liability could 'dampen the prosecutor's exercise of his [prosecutorial] duty to bring to the attention of the court or of proper officials all significant evidence suggestive of innocence or mitigation,'" Flaum wrote. "While a prosecutor guilty of the fabrication with which [the defendants are] accused might never be incentivized to reveal his violation - regardless of absolute immunity - we recognize this possibility as a cost outweighed by absolute immunity's effect on the 'ultimate fairness of the operation of the [judicial] system [overall].'"

In addition to finding that Wharrie enjoyed absolute immunity, the court said Fields had failed to state a claim against Kelley.

The 26-page decision cites the Supreme Court's ruling in Van de Kamp v Goldstein, which indicated that a prosecutor's "responsibilities do not end until the defendant either has been acquitted or has availed himself of all the direct process to which he is entitled."

"The District Court suggests that because Wharrie was preparing for other trials and no longer directly involved in Fields' appeal or retrial, this fact wrests from him his prosecutorial function. We disagree," Flaum wrote. Wharrie "was not fully divorced from Fields' judicial proceedings until all direct judicial remedies were exhausted and Fields' conviction became final. It follows that the immunity attendant to his prosecutorial disclosure obligation survives his departure from the courtroom as well."

The panel also rejected Fields' other claims, including those against Kelley. "Had Kelley been unaware of the coerced nature of the testimony, Fields could sustain a claim against those parties that coerced the confession and 'bilked' Kelley into retrying the case on its basis," Flaum wrote. "These are not the facts of this case, however. Kelley was aware of the coercion applied: he was the one that applied it. Accordingly, Fields cannot maintain an independent claim against him for the coercion of the testimony independent of its use at retrial."

The court affirmed the trial court's supplemental jurisdiction over Fields' remaining state-law claims, but recommended that they be remanded to a state court.

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