By Stephanie Weiner
October 22, 2011
Chicago, IL – Jacques Rivera has been released after 21 years in prison, after being exonerated for a murder he did not commit. On Oct. 4 he spoke to the press waiting outside the jail. Surrounded by his family, lawyers and members of the activist group Comite Exigimos Justicia (CEJ) which worked tirelessly for justice in this case he said, “The city of Chicago needs to know the truth and that is that I did not kill Felix Valentin.”
Rivera’s case was particularly shocking because the prosecution’s 1988 case hinged solely on a 12-year old eyewitness. The issue of the obvious unreliability of eyewitness identifications in a police lineup – especially by children – was reported on widely in the Chicago coverage of this case. But what Jacques Rivera means when he says that “it didn’t have to go like that” is the fact that his case was handled by Detective Reynaldo Guevara of the Gang Crimes Unit of Area 5.
Fight Back! has reported for years on the rampant corruption in Chicago’s police department, especially in the Puerto Rican neighborhood of Area 5. A community campaign for justice developed in the late 1990s with over 40 wrongful conviction murder cases. These cases stemmed from a group of crooked cops, often with Detective Reynaldo Guevara at the head of the team. This was the same gang crimes unit where Detective Joseph Miedzianowski got sentenced to life in jail for running such a large and open drug organization that the Chicago Tribune titled him “Chicago’s most corrupt cop.”
The Comite Exigimos Justicia members demanded that all cases that these officers signed off on be made public and re-investigated when indicated. For example, the eyewitness in Rivera’s case said that one week after the mistaken line up he had tried to tell the detectives the truth but they ignored him.
Jacques Rivera, 46 years old, is now home with his family trying to adjust to a very different Chicago than in 1988 when he was last out. He seems still in disbelief that the 80-year sentence for a crime he did not commit is finally behind him. His children have grown up almost their entire lives seeing their father in 2 hour prison visits. This past weekend he sat on the brick bungalow front stoop looking at the scrapbook with flyers and photos of CEJ events held over the years. He recognizes the names of some of the other Area 5 frame up cases, like Mario Flores, freed from death row a few years ago; Angel Rodriguez, freed in 2004 in what had originally been a 70-year sentence and Juan Johnson, freed in 2010. Johnson received the largest settlement in the history of Chicago: $21 million. In addition, the Johnson case was able to force Detective Guevara to testify in court and pay penalties.
Members of CEJ often spoke about Area 5 detectives pinning false charges on opposing gang members in order to protect their own contacts in the streets or to appear to have quickly closed a case. Rivera’s mother Gwen Rivera was an active member of CEJ and believed all along that her son was innocent and had been framed. This Humboldt Park committee of mostly Puerto Rican and Mexican women protested regularly at Area 5 station, city hall, the state attorney’s office, the Justice Department and monthly Chicago Police Board meetings fighting to free their loved ones.
These CEJ women were some of the strongest voices to raise the issues of the CPD’s racist attacks in the Latino Northwest side neighborhood and link it to the CPD’s policies that were terrorizing and falsely jailing people in the West and South Side Black community. That activism and research connecting the common patterns in the frame ups led to Northwestern Law School Center for Wrongful Convictions to take up Rivera’s case.
These kinds of victories open the way for other Guevara frame-up cases like Nelson Gonzalez, Johnny Flores, Armando Serrano and Roberto Almadovar. These men are still locked up while they and their families suffer. Charlie and Esther Hernandez stood outside the jail gate to welcome Rivera. They held a photo of their son in prison. They said, “This hurts everyone because the community continues to pay to jail the innocent.”
Jacques Rivera mentions his upcoming civil suit and plans he has to help others. He says he would be very happy to attend this year’s People’s Thanksgiving dinner and Fight Back! newspaper award event in Chicago on Dec. 3. At this event, guests write personal notes in holiday cards to send to political prisoners and the wrongfully convicted. He looks forward to getting to meet more of the people of CEJ, who he now calls part of his “dream team” as well as learn about other justice issues. Although this is only the 19th year of the Thanksgiving event, Rivera’s freedom is an inspiring victory over 21 years in the making.