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Homeless man charged in murder of off-duty Officer John Rivera gives opening statement

Cook County prosecutors say Jovan Battle pointed out John Rivera to the man who shot the off-duty officer. Battle, who is representing himself during his trial, told jurors, “I’m not a killer.”

Button worn by some mourners at the funeral for Chicago Police Officer John P. Rivera
A button on the lapel of a mourner at funeral services for Chicago Police Officer John Rivera in March. Jovan Battle, one of three men charged in the killing of the off-duty officer, is on trial this week.
Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times

Before a packed courtroom Tuesday, a homeless man charged in the murder of an off-duty Chicago police officer addressed Cook County jurors on the first day of his trial, giving a rambling opening statement in which he admitted to drug addiction, sleeping in alleys and panhandling, but denying he pointed out Officer John Rivera as a target for the alleged gunman.

Jovan Battle wore a rumpled suit borrowed from the public defender’s office — the only help he received from the office since turning down a court-appointed attorney last month — as he gave a disjointed account of his life, from growing up in the Cabrini Green housing projects to the night he was arrested in River North after shots were fired into Rivera’s parked car, killing the 23-year-old officer and badly wounding one of his passengers.

Representing himself, Battle, 32, insisted on going to trial well ahead of his co-defendants, alleged gunman Menelik Jackson and Jaquan Washington — two men he met in the early morning hours of March 23 near the intersection of Clark and Huron streets. Prosecutor Andrew Varga told jurors Battle erroneously told Jackson that Rivera had been part of a group of Hispanic men who had scuffled with Jackson earlier that night. Jackson was armed and looking for revenge, the prosecutor said.

Menelik Jackson (left) and Jovan Battle (right)
Menelik Jackson (left) and Jovan Battle (right)
Chicago police

Battle, gesturing to an unkempt stack of papers at the defense table, said he would prove he intended to defuse the situation and warn Rivera and his friends before Jackson opened fire.

“I may not have a million dollars. I may not have a house ... I may not be the perfect father,” Battle said. “I’m not a killer. I’m not the shooter ... I’m not charged correctly.”

Jackson and another co-defendant, Jaquan Washington, are awaiting trial.

Jaquan Washington
Jaquan Washington
Chicago police

Battle argued Tuesday he should not be charged with murder under the state’s accountability laws.

In his opening statements, Varga said Battle had encountered Jackson and Washington and armed himself with a beer bottle as they looked for a group that had pummeled Washington about an hour earlier outside the Rock ‘N Roll McDonald’s. Battle directed Jackson and Washington to the car where Rivera was parked after a night out with friends. Jackson fired two volleys of shots — one into the driver’s side window where Rivera was seated — and the second into the seat behind Rivera’s, severely wounding his friend, a military reservist, Varga said.

“(Jackson) was angry, and he had a gun, and he had no target,” Varga said. “What was clear was that Jovan Battle provided that target.”

Surveillance cameras captured Washington and Jackson fighting with a group of Latino men about an hour before the shooting, and police camera video showed the shooting. Seated in the front row across from the jury, Rivera’s mother, Catalina Rivera Ortiz, sniffled and dabbed at her eyes with a tissue as the video of the shooting played.

Battle’s meandering statements and cross-examination of witnesses did allow him to give jurors information that might not have entered the record if he’d had a lawyer, who would likely have not encouraged him to take the stand. A McDonald’s security officer who testified about video of the fight, when cross-examined by Battle, acknowledged that Battle had been banned from the Rock ‘N Roll McDonald’s — and a location on Chicago Avenue — for sleeping and bothering customers.

But Battle did walk into trouble when he questioned a CPD officer who was monitoring the surveillance camera that filmed the shooting — and that showed Battle standing a few yards from Rivera’s car and pointing at it before Jackson opened fire.

“Is it a crime to point?” Battle asked.

“Yes, in this case, in the totality of circumstances,” Officer Michael Mickey said. “You were directing him who to shoot, and you knew exactly what he was doing.”