In August 1988, 16-year-old Felix Valentin was shot multiple times as he sat in a car parked in an alley on Chicago’s West Side. Eighteen days later, he died from his wounds. An 11-year-old boy who saw the shooting from an alcove about 25 feet away told police that he had a “clear view” of the gunman’s face and had seen him playing baseball at Humboldt Park several times that summer.
The witness described the shooter as approximately 5-10, dressed in black, and wearing his long dark hair in a ponytail dyed gold. Black and gold were the colors of the Latin Kings, and after the witness gave this description to police, they showed him photo albums of suspected Latin Kings gang members. He identified 23-year-old Jacques Rivera’s photo in one of the albums and later picked Rivera out of a lineup.
Rivera was arrested in September 1988, and tried at a bench trial before Cook County Circuit Court Judge Michael Close on April 5, 1989. The eyewitness, who was 13 by the time of trial, was the state’s only witness who placed Rivera at the scene of the shooting. No physical evidence connected Rivera to the crime.
The witness testified that he knew Valentin, who was a friend of his older sister. According to the witness, Valentin’s older brother was a member of the Campbell Boys street gang, which at the time was feuding with two other area gangs, the Latin Kings and the Imperial Gangsters. The witness said that on the day of the murder, he was crossing an alley on the way to a neighborhood video store. In the alley, he saw a man standing next to Valentin’s parked car. The witness saw the man fire several shots into the car at Valentin. The witness testified that he ran to the video store, but when store clerks refused to call the police, he ran back to the alley and hid in the alcove. From there he saw the man shoot into the car one last time. After firing the final shot, the shooter looked in the direction of the witness, but apparently did not see him, jumped into a car parked in the middle of the street, and sped away from the scene.
Rivera testified that he had spent the day at home with his common-law wife and their children, and that he had never played baseball at the Humboldt Park recreation center. Furthermore, he testified that he had not been a member of the Latin Kings since he was much younger, and had never dyed any part of his hair gold. Rivera’s pastor and a friend were called as witnesses and corroborated his testimony.
The defense presented testimony from Chicago police officer Craig Letrich that the victim himself identified someone other than Rivera as the shooter. Letrich testified that, as a result of his interview with Valentin the day after the shooting, he showed Valentin a photo album of suspected Imperial Gangsters. Valentin identified Jose Rodriguez, whom Officer Letrich arrested, and Phillip Nueves, who was never apprehended. Rodriguez, however, was released without being charged.
Judge Close found Rivera guilty and sentenced him to 80 years in prison. Rivera lost all of his appeals.
In January 2010, investigators from the Center on Wrongful Convictions located the eyewitness at Rivera’s trial, 23 years after his identification of Rivera. In an interview with an investigator, the witness broke down and told of his misidentification. In a sworn affidavit, the witness said he tried to tell the police and prosecutors before Rivera’s trial that, several days after identifying Rivera, he saw the actual shooter, and that he had wrongfully identified Rivera. According to the witness, the detectives did not believe him and thought he was recanting because he was afraid of gang retaliation. The witness stated: “I have been waiting for years for someone to find me so I could tell the truth.”
Following the recantation, Jane Raley from the Center on Wrongful Convictions, sought a new trial for Rivera. Cook County Circuit Court Judge Neera Walsh ruled that the witness’s recantation was credible, stating that “the only reason this court sees for [the witness’s] recantation now is a desire to correct a mistake” and ordered a new trial for Rivera.
On October 4, 2011, Cook County prosecutors announced that they did not intend to proceed to a new trial and dismissed all charges. Rivera was freed that day.
On September 5, 2012, a Cook County Circuit Court judge granted Rivera a certificate of innocence. That same year, River filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Chicago police detective Reynaldo Guevara and other officers of burying evidence and pressuring the witness to falsely identify him as the triggerman.
- Center on Wrongful Convications