The Watch

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Owning Up, Something the Tribune Will Never Do...

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In dramatic courtroom testimony Friday in federal court, a retired detective expressed sorrow for a man who spent more than two decades in prison for a gang murder that occurred thirty years ago.

Former detective Steve Gawrys testified that he feels bad for Jacques Rivera, whose conviction for the 1988 gang murder of Felix Valentin was based upon the testimony of a twelve-year-old witness. Gawrys’s statement is the latest twist in an intense trial mired in allegations of corruption from the police who investigated the case to Judge Michael Close, who convicted Rivera during a bench trial in 1990.

Indeed, even Rivera’s criminal trial attorney, Kenneth Wadas, now a respected circuit court judge who once took cases for the union that represents police officers, testified on behalf of Rivera, saying he was shocked that the judge in the case convicted his client on the sole testimony of one twelve-year-old witness. Among the several stark anomalies in the case, Wadas, in a startling disclosure, said he was not given key police reports that would have exonerated his client.

Defense attorneys argued that the misconduct in the case arose from parties in the criminal trial other than the detectives. Defense attorneys, for example, asked Wadas during questioning away from the jury whether Wadas suspected foul play by the presiding judge in the 1990 criminal trial. Wadas said the idea had “crossed his mind.” The attorneys’ questions harkened back to the dark years of the so-called Greylord scandal, when more than a dozen sitting judges were accused and eventually convicted of taking bribes in exchange for favorable and arbitrary rulings in certain cases.

Defense attorneys also tried to cast doubt on the retraction of the sole witness, Orlando Lopez, whose recantation paved the way for Rivera’s release from prison. Lopez, who identified Rivera to detectives, then testified against him in the trial, was twelve years old when he claimed to have seen Rivera shoot gang member Valentin. Lopez subsequently retracted his original statements to investigators from Northwestern University. Defense attorneys cast suspicion on Lopez’s retraction.

Indeed, one of the defense attorneys for the detectives, James Sotos, settled a landmark lawsuit against Northwestern just a few weeks ago asserting a pattern of misconduct in wrongful conviction investigations at the school, including false witness recantations, going back decades.

In expressing regret to Rivera and saying he could have done a better job in writing his report, Gawrys nevertheless insisted that the detectives did not conspire to frame Rivera. Gawrys placed the blame on the witness, Orlando Lopez, for fingering Rivera to begin with.

Nevertheless, Chicago Tribune reporter Jason Meisner seized on the testimony of Gawrys to push the police misconduct theory in the case, castigating Gawrys for blaming a twelve-year-old witness

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Photo of tweet.

But it was prosecutors who proceeded with the testimony of Lopez in the criminal trial, and the presiding judge who found Rivera guilty based on that testimony.

Meisner and his employer, the Chicago Tribune, are at the heart of a growing scandal surrounding a too-cozy relationship between wrongful conviction law firms and the media. Neither Meisner nor the Tribune, for example, have admitted any in the pattern of misconduct alleged in wrongful conviction cases championed by the Tribune, particularly those of columnist Eric Zorn, even though those cases have blown up and gone against the Tribune upon further legal scrutiny.

Instead, Meisner seized upon Gawrys’s testimony expressing sorrow to Rivera to condemn the detectives, giving full voice to the claim that one of the detectives in the case, Reynaldo Guevara, is accused of a pattern and practice of framing suspects in a collection of other cases. Some eighteen offenders have been released based upon claims of misconduct by Guevara, Meisner pointed out.

Those accusations are at the centerpiece of the Rivera civil trial, crucial for the attorneys representing Rivera—chief among them Jon Loevy—to garner a huge payout in the case. Without that pattern and practice theory against Guevara, the Rivera case degenerates into a cacophony of potential incompetence and misconduct within layers of Chicago’s criminal justice system. While some of the detectives, like Guevara, have pled the Fifth, others, like Gawrys, testified, claiming there may have been some shoddy paperwork, but there was no intent to frame Rivera or coerce a statement from Lopez.

At least a Chicago detective expressed sorrow for Rivera’s misfortune, something neither Meisner nor the Tribune has expressed in the long record of ludicrous exoneration claims by the media outlet that may have released actual killers from prison.

That may be small comfort to Rivera, a self-admitted Latin King at the time of the shooting, who, it now appears, may have spent two decades in prison for a murder he may not have committed.