Key Wrongful Conviction Trial Heats Up
Tempers flared in a key wrongful conviction trial Friday in federal court, with one attorney representing detectives accusing plaintiff attorney Jon Loevy of engaging in “gamesmanship” and “shenanigans.”
Attorney James Sotos, one of several attorneys representing a collection of retired detectives accused of coercing a false confession from Latin King gang member Jacques Rivera for the 1988 murder of Felix Valentin, accused attorney Jon Loevy of not following rules of evidence in civil cases.
Sotos apparently was objecting to late-night, last-minute subpoenas for witnesses by Loevy.
The Rivera trial is a key in developing a “pattern and practice” claim against defendants like retired detective Ray Guevara, which, if successful, could be a virtual “pot of gold” for wrongful conviction law firms. Guevara is accused by wrongful conviction law firms of coercing confessions from alleged suspects in several cases. Indeed, wrongful conviction attorneys and activists have been attending the Guevera proceedings throughout the week.
In a move strongly condemned by FOP attorneys, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx earlier this year placed Guevara in what some attorneys called a “perjury trap,” forcing him to testify.
Foxx has strong ties to the Loevy and Loevy law firm. One of her top assistant state’s attorneys once worked at the firm.
The tension between Sotos and Loevy at trial Friday has generated heated responses from U.S. District Judge Joan B. Gottschall as well, whose rulings seem to heavily favor plaintiffs.
Guevara is expected to plead the Fifth in the case, a fact that Loevy will no doubt portray to the jury as bolstering defense claims.
But long examination and cross examination of one defendant, retired Sergeant Gillian McLaughlin, the lead detective in the case, clearly went well for the detectives.
Loevy tried many times to rattle McLaughlin, who remained poised. Loevy made much of the fact that McLaughlin put the wrong date on one of her reports. But defense attorneys easily showed that a sergeant’s signature at the bottom of the report revealed the correct date.
In one particularly compelling part of her testimony, McLaughlin testified that she, not Guevera, was the one who first spoke to the key twelve-year-old witness, Orlando Lopez, who fingered Rivera as the shooter. McLaughlin testified that Lopez did not know Rivera by name but remembered him from playing baseball at a nearby park.
McLaughlin stated that Lopez approached McLaughlin at the crime scene and described how Rivera exited a vehicle, ran up to the car Valentin was waiting in and repeatedly fired into it. Valentin’s fourteen-year-old brother discovered his brother badly wounded and drove him in the car to the hospital, crashing three times along the way.
McLaughlin’s testimony generated some basic challenges to the “forced confession” narrative Loevy is attempting to establish. How did McLaughlin come up with a plan to get a twelve-year-old child to make a false statement? How did she get other detectives in on the plot? How did they know that some evidence or witness wouldn’t emerge days later that would reveal their conspiracy?
A central issue in the case is the legitimacy of Orlando Lopez’s witness retraction some two decades after the trial. Attorneys for the detectives clearly remain skeptical about the legitimacy of the retraction. Prosecutors also remained skeptical about the retraction during Rivera’s post-conviction proceedings.
Lopez’s witness retraction was obtained by two Northwestern University investigators, according to reports.
Indeed, Sotos recently represented a man, Alstory Simon, freed from prison in 2014 on claims that he was coerced by Northwestern investigators to confess to a murder he didn’t commit. In that lawsuit, which was settled a week ago, Sotos argued that Northwestern had established a pattern of false witness recantations in several cases going back decades.
The local news media, often accused by active and retired police personnel and the Fraternal Order of Police of being in the back pocket of wrongful conviction law firms, has refused to tie the evidence of false witness retractions in the Alstory Simon case to the Rivera case.
The trial is expected to continue throughout the week.