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Judge adds $5.57M in legal fees to $22M verdict against city in Death Row case

Nathson Fields

Nathson Fields | Sun-Times file photo

More than a year after a jury hit the city with a $22 million verdict for the wrongful conviction of an ex-El Rukn gang member, a federal judge has ordered the city to pay another $5.57 million in fees to the man’s lawyers.

It’s just the latest in a series of hits the city has taken to its coffers after allegations of police misconduct have spilled into court. However, the order by U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly falls short of awarding the full $7.5 million sought by Nathson Fields’ lawyers.

“This was a highly complex case that required mastery of an extensive factual record created by, among other things, two state court criminal trials, extensive federal criminal proceedings involving the El Rukn street gang, a seven-day trial in this case that ended in a mistrial, the full sixteen-day trial in 2014, and a massive quantity of documents,” Kennelly wrote.

Bill McCaffrey, a spokesman for the city’s law department, said in a statement that, “we believe that these fees are excessive and are planning to appeal.”

Fields spent 18 years behind bars, including 11 on Death Row, before he was cleared at a 2009 retrial for the 1984 murder of Talman Hickman and Jerome “Fuddy” Smith. It was revealed in the meantime that Cook County Judge Thomas Maloney, who presided over Fields’ original 1986 trial, took a $10,000 bribe that he returned only because he thought the feds were watching.

After Fields was cleared, a long-missing police file connected to his case was “discovered,” buried in an old filing cabinet in the basement of a South Side police station. For years, police and prosecutors denied it existed. But Fields’ lawyers believe it was hidden on purpose because it held evidence that might have cleared their client far sooner.

Fields filed his lawsuit in 2010. Though he first took it to trial in 2014 and landed an $80,000 verdict, the release later that year of El Rukn killer Earl Hawkins months after he testified against Fields raised eyebrows. Kennelly ruled in April 2015 that it appeared Hawkins got a “bonanza” deal, ordering yet another trial.

Three days into that proceeding, federal prosecutors asked U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer to cut the sentence of El Rukn enforcer Derrick Kees from 25 years to 12 years, saying Kees had provided “substantial assistance to the government” by testifying against Fields.