A federal jury on Friday awarded $17.175 million to a man who spent 21 years behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit — another case tied to former Chicago cop Reynaldo Guevara who invoked his Fifth Amendment right hundreds of times as he was questioned on the stand during the case.
Jacques Rivera was imprisoned for the 1988 murder of 16-year-old Felix Valentin, who was shot to death in the West Humboldt Park neighborhood. His attorneys had asked for up to $42 million.
Rivera broke down in tears immediately upon hearing the jury ruled in his favor on the first count, a violation of due process. In the hallway afterward, there were fist pumps, hugging and tears.
“Twenty-one years, this guy put me away, away from my family,” said Rivera, wearing a shirt to court with the motto, “Trust & Believe.”
Outside the courtroom, he pulled out a cellphone to call family members, saying “We didn’t have this when I went to prison.”
On Wednesday, before a jury at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, Rivera’s attorney, Jon Loevy, railed against the 75-year-old ex-Chicago cop Guevara, whom Loevy said was a main author of a scheme to frame his client for murder.
The jury ordered Guevara to personally pay $75,000 in punitive damages. Two more officers in the investigation were also ordered to pay $75,000 and $25,000, respectively.
Referring to the $17 million award, Rivera told reporters, “The taxpayers are going to keep paying. They’re going to keep paying out of their pocket. They need to stop these cops from doing these wrongful convictions.”
Rivera was brought to tears when he said that he wished his mother could have lived to hear the jury’s verdict. He was joined by about two dozen supporters and several family members, including his daughter, Jennifer, and son, Jacques Jr.
His daughter was 6 months old when he went to prison, Rivera said.
Rivera pledged that some of the money awarded to him would be reinvested to help gang members improve their lives.
“There’s so many young men out there that need help and I’m not just gonna run off on the city of Chicago,” he said. “Some of it’s gonna go back into the community. We’ve gotta help these young men out.”
Apart from claims of false police reports, Loevy boiled the case down to the coerced testimony of Oscar Lopez — the only witness in the case — who was 12 years old at the time.
Guevara manipulated the “malleable memory” of a boy who saw a gunman from a distance of nearly 200 feet in order to fit the police version of events, Loevy said.
Lopez admitted to investigators from Northwestern University’s Center for Wrongful Convictions in 2010 that he knew Rivera, who’s now 52, was not the shooter.
Defense attorney Jim Sotos on Wednesday said the argument that police would frame Rivera was “utter nonsense.”
Loevy reminded jurors that when asked if he framed Rivera for murder, Guevera took the Fifth on the witness stand. He refused to testify to dozens of questions during the trial because “the truth would implicate him to a crime,” Loevy said.
After the verdict, Loevy called the Guevara scandal one of the biggest in the city’s history.
“People talk about Jon Burge, but what Guevara did, and the wrongful convictions he caused, really exceed anything that anybody else has done,” he said. “And there has been no accountability.”
Daisy Valentin, Felix Valentin’s younger sister, told the Chicago Sun-Times that she believes Rivera deserves the money he was awarded, but her family is still suffering.
“I knew that this day would come and I knew they they would give him that type of reward, but my brother lost his life over it,” she said.
“We’re never going to know who killed my brother. We’re never going to know,” she added.
The Valentins’ parents both died believing that Rivera was guilty of murdering Felix Valentin, she said.
Two months after Felix Valentin was killed, another one of Daisy Valentin’s brothers was also shot to death in the Humboldt Park neighborhood near her parents’ house. She said no one was ever charged with that murder.
Contributing: Mitch Dudek