Fields in the lineup in 1985

In the 18 years Nathson Fields spent behind bars—­including more than 11 and a half on death row—for a double murder he didn’t commit, he says he watched dozens of friends and fellow inmates become ill, lose their will to live, or die of treatable health problems. “Sometimes prisoners went completely insane,” he remarked recently. “I very well could have been one of those guys. It’s the pressure of watching your friends being taken away.”

Fields was speaking at a recent luncheon at Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue hosted by the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. About 45 people attended the event, part of the coalition’s effort to involve the public in its campaign to abolish the death penalty in Illinois. Though there have been no executions here since Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium on them in 2000, a death sentence is still on the books as a sentencing option, and since the moratorium Illinois has added 16 prisoners to death row.

This was one of Fields’s first public talks since he was acquitted in April 2009. “Now I’m going to go forward with it—just traveling around to churches, letting people know,” he told the audience. Going forward includes filing a civil suit (PDF) in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, which Fields did on February 22—naming as defendants more than three dozen parties, from the city and the county to Mayor Richard M. Daley, on claims ranging from malicious prosecution to intentional infliction of emotional distress. The suit, which Fields filed pro se, seeks “$360,000,000 plus” in damages.

In June 1985, Fields—at the time a member of the El Rukns gang—was driving down his south-side street when the police pulled him over, ran an ID check, then took him in as a suspect in the shooting deaths a year earlier of two members of the Goon Squad gang. It was a hot day, he recalls, and he was wearing short sleeves—which not only made him conspicuous in a lineup of men wearing long sleeves but also revealed the El Rukns tattoo on his forearm. The witnesses called to the lineup—who, Fields alleges in his federal suit, later testified to being Goon Squad members—fingered him as the perpetrator. He was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, and in June 1986 he was convicted along with codefendant and fellow El Rukn Earl Hawkins. Cook County Circuit Court judge Thomas Maloney sentenced them both to death.

In 1993, as part of the judicial-corruption investigation known as Operation Greylord, Maloney was found guilty of fixing four cases, including Fields’s. He’d accepted a $10,000 bribe from Hawkins’s attorney, William Swano, but returned it after sensing that the FBI was onto him. Both Hawkins and Swano testified against Maloney at his trial, and Maloney served more than 12 years in prison, dying shortly after his release in 2008.

Maloney’s conviction didn’t automatically get Fields or Hawkins retried. Cook County Circuit Court judge Deborah Dooling granted their postconviction petitions for a new trial in 1996, citing Maloney’s “direct, personal, substantial, pecuniary interest” in the outcome of their cases, but the state appealed her decision. The Illinois Supreme Court upheld it, but not until 1998, which is when Fields was taken off death row and sent to Cook County Jail to wait for a new trial. Hawkins pleaded guilty to bribery charges relating to the Maloney bribery attempt and received a 60-year federal sentence; he got a 42-year state sentence after pleading guilty to armed violence—a lesser charge than murder, and part of a deal he made with the state in exchange for testifying against Fields at Fields’s retrial.

Fields says he probably would have sat in jail until the 2009 trial if Aaron Patterson hadn’t come to his rescue. Patterson, whom Fields calls his “best friend,” was allegedly tortured into a confession by Chicago police detectives led by commander Jon Burge. He was convicted for a double murder and was sentenced to death in 1989. Fields says he met Patterson at Cook County Jail in 1986 and the men became close at Menard. Pardoned by Governor George Ryan and released in 2003, Patterson took out a loan for $100,000 against his forthcoming state compensation payment, and later that year he used the money to bail out Fields. (In July 2005, Patterson was convicted of drug and gun violations and sentenced to 30 years; his case is on appeal.)

Nathson FieldsCredit: Lauri Apple

Fields was free for the first time in 18 years. He moved in with family on the south side and started mowing his relatives’ lawns to make money, then branched out to those of his neighbors. Eventually he saved enough to get his own apartment and started a landscaping business, but then he got a job in construction, where, he says, “I found my niche.” Since being laid off two years ago, he’s been living on unemployment, but he says he’s started a new business, Worldwide Constructors and Landscapers, that will debut soon by rehabbing a car wash, a restaurant, and a beauty salon.

Fields has another project in the works: he’s engaged to be married to a woman he’s known since high school. The two reconnected in 2003, after his release. She and members of his family sat quietly listening at the event at Fourth Presbyterian, while Fields recounted his experiences.

While Fields was on death row, 11 inmates were executed. Others died, he says, due to poor or nonexistent medical care. “To me, these were executions off the record,” he told his audience at the church. He recalled one inmate receiving Tylenol after complaining of chest pains; he died of an aneurysm within a few months. Other inmates committed suicide.

Fields recounted a conversation he’d had one night with a fellow inmate, through the bars of their cells: “He said, ‘It was really nice knowing you. He was talking like he was going somewhere. I tried to act like I didn’t hear what he said because I dreaded to hear what he was saying.” Overnight the man hung himself.

Fields called his life today “a miracle.” When I asked him how he survived what so many others didn’t, he smiled and said, “My mother told me growing up that every situation is temporary. I just tried to remember that.”   

For the Reader’s extensive coverage of police torture under Commander Jon Burge, see