On April 28, 1984, Talman Hickman and Jerome Smith, members of the Black Gangster Disciples, were shot to death at 706 W. 39th Street in Chicago, Illinois.
In June of the following year, Nathson Fields, a 31-year-old member of the rival El Rukn street gang, was arrested, although he did not fit the description given by witnesses. In the lineup, Fields wore a short sleeve shirt that revealed an El Rukn tattoo on his forearm, which made him conspicuous in a lineup of men wearing long sleeves. The witnesses called to the lineup — who later testified to being Black Gangster Disciples — fingered him as the perpetrator.
Fields was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, and in a June 1986 bench trial, he was convicted along with codefendant and fellow El Rukn Earl Hawkins. Cook County Circuit Court judge Thomas Maloney sentenced them both to death.
A year later, a county prosecutor negotiated a deal under which Hawkins was removed from death row in exchange for testifying against other gang members in unrelated cases. Fields remained on death row, and in 1990, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously upheld his conviction and sentence.
Three years later there was a stunning development: Judge Maloney was convicted of federal charges that, among other things, he accepted a $10,000 bribe from a corrupt lawyer named William Swano, who represented Hawkins, to acquit his client of murdering Smith and Hickman. According to the FBI evidence, Maloney had learned that he was under investigation by the FBI before the trial ended, so he had returned the money to Swano and proceeded to convict Fields and Hawkins.
In light of Maloney’s conviction, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Vincent Gaughan ordered a new trial for Fields in 1996. While the retrial was pending, two key witnesses in the case recanted. Gerald Morris and Randy Langston had testified at the 1986 trial that they had seen Fields and Hawkins gun down Hickman and Smith outside a public housing project. In affidavits provided to defense investigators, Morris and Langston stated that police and prosecutors had coerced them to falsely identify Fields and Hawkins. In fact, Morris and Langston had no idea who killed Smith and Hickman because the killers had worn masks.
Fields, who maintained his innocence, remained in custody until he was released on bond in 2003 while awaiting a retrial.
Ongoing appeals by the prosecution delayed the retrial another six years, but when it finally occurred, the prosecution called Hawkins to testify against Fields.
On the stand, under cross examination by Fields’s lawyer, Jean Maclean Snyder, Hawkins admitted his involvement in at least 15 murders during his El Rukn years. Gaughan found Hawkins unworthy of belief and acquitted Fields on April 8, 2009, saying, “If someone has such disregard for human life, what regard will he have for his oath?”
Fields received a Certificate of Innocence after serving 18 years in prison – 11 on death row. As a result, he received $199,150 from the Illinois Court of Claims. However, the Illinois Appellate Court set aside the Certificate of Innocence in 2011 and ordered a new hearing to determine whether Fields qualified. In March 2014, a Cook County judge denied the certificate. A federal lawsuit against the City of Chicago remained pending.
— Center on Wrongful Convictions