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Wrongfully convicted former Death Row inmate gets second bite at $18 million case

A former Death Row inmate who was wrongfully convicted of a double murder after a Chicago cop withheld or fabricated evidence against him, then was left fuming when a federal jury awarded him just $80,000 in damages, is getting another chance to win the $18 million he says he deserves.

Former El Rukn gang member Nathson Fields was last year denied a fair trial of his lawsuit against the City of Chicago, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly ruled late Monday.

Authorities hid a “bonanza” deal that allowed a key witness for the city to get out of prison early after he testified against Fields last year, Kennelly ruled in ordering a new trial.

And in an unusual move, the judge admitted he personally made two errors that also cost Fields a fair trial.

Convicted in 1986 of a double murder, Fields, now 61, spent 18 years behind bars — 12 on Death Row — before he was cleared at a retrial in 2009.

After he 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. Police and prosecutors for years denied the file existed; Fields’ lawyers claimed it was hidden on purpose because it held evidence that might have cleared Fields far sooner.

Fields sued the city and the cops he said had framed him. But he lost on nearly all of his claims last year, prevailing only on a single claim against one officer, Sgt. David O’Callaghan; jurors found O’Callaghan had either fabricated or withheld evidence to help convict Fields.

Crucially, Fields’ alleged accomplice and fellow high-ranking El Rukn, Earl Hawkins, testified for the city that Fields was in fact guilty. He told jurors he had no deal with authorities for a significant reduction in his sentence in return for his testimony and that he did not expect to get out of prison until 2026.

But just months after his testimony helped the city, Hawkins was a free man. Among those who had urged the parole board to release him were O’Callaghan, several other cops, Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney Brian Sexton and Assistant U.S. Attorney William Hogan.

Kennelly found that jurors could have drawn a “reasonable inference . . . that there was a connection” between the favor Hawkins did the city and his early release.

If jurors had known that Hawkins would soon be released, Kennelly wrote, that ”would have cut at the heart of the defendants’ case.

“Considering the critical role Hawkins played in the underlying events and as a witness at trial, the court finds it reasonably probable that evidence tending to show that his 2013-2014 testimony against Fields would result in his near-immediate release would have produced a different result in the present case.”

Kennelly acknowledged mistakes of his own. Rulings he made improperly restricted Fields’ lawyers from arguing that the city had a policy and practice of hiding and fabricating evidence, he wrote.

The ruling is the latest twist in a decades-long legal saga that began with Hawkins bribing a Cook County judge when he stood trial for the murders of two men alongside Fields in 1986.

Fields’ attorney, Candace Gorman, said Tuesday that Fields was “just ecstatic” after learning via a text message that his case can move forward. “His prayers were answered,” she said.

Gorman said she doesn’t expect Hawkins to testify at the new trial, which she said could happen later this year if the case is not settled.

She said that despite the multiple trials in his criminal and civil cases, his years in prison and on Death Row, Fields has remained remarkably stoic.

“He’s such a positive person,” she said. “A lesser person would crack under all this pressure, but when I told him that the judge was going to rule this week, he said, ‘It’s going to be fine.’ ”

A spokesman for the city did not immediately return calls seeking comment.