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Lawyers: Faulty printer may have corrupted key police files

Nathson Fields is a former Death Row inmate who was cleared of a double murder. | Rummana Hussain/Sun-Times file photo

A carefully crafted system to isolate hundreds of investigatory files discovered in the basement of a Chicago police station may have been irrevocably corrupted by a bad printer, lawyers for a wrongfully convicted former Death Row inmate claim.

Discovered years ago in an old filing cabinet in the basement of a South Side police station, the lawyers believe the files may contain evidence that could have earlier cleared their client, Nathson Fields, along with many other defendants. But the faulty printer may now render it “impossible” to tell what documents were found only in the basement and not in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s files.

Lawyers for the city have claimed the mistake was “isolated” to one file, records show. A gag order governs the case, leading representatives of the city and the State’s Attorney’s office to decline to comment.

Convicted in 1986 of a double murder, Fields spent 18 years behind bars — and 12 on death row — before he was cleared after a retrial in 2009. The long-missing police file connected to his case was discovered in the basement after he was cleared. Fields has been pursuing a federal wrongful prosecution lawsuit against the city for years.

The city agreed to mark documents from the basement files with a distinctive stamp to ensure they were not improperly commingled with the State’s Attorney’s files, according to a motion filed Sunday by Fields’ lawyers. However, that motion alleges the State’s Attorney’s office printed basement files from a city disc using a printer that enlarged the documents enough to crop out the stamp. The problem was allegedly discovered because a few of the stamps were not cropped away.

Fields’ legal team claims it has “no way to know, and never will know with any degree of certainty which of the Basement File documents appearing in the (State’s Attorney) files were printed on the offending printer that un-stamps documents.”

“The whole point is that the stamps are now missing from those documents, so that no one can now tell which of the hard copy documents in the (State’s Attorney’s) files once bore the ‘Area Central Basement’ stamps, and which documents never did,” Jon Loevy, one of Fields’ lawyers, wrote.

Lawyers are expected to discuss the matter with U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly on Aug. 17.