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Fields v. City of Chicago

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

April 8, 2014

CITY OF CHICAGO, et al., Defendants.


MATTHEW F. KENNELLY, District Judge.

Plaintiff Nathson Fields was prosecuted for murder in connection with the shooting of Jerome Smith and Talman Hickman in 1984. In 1986, Fields was convicted after a bench trial before Judge Thomas Maloney, and he was sentenced to death after a penalty-phase trial before a jury. The conviction and sentence were affirmed on appeal in 1990. See People v. Fields, 135 Ill.2d 18, 552 N.E.2d 791 (1990). Fields thereafter filed a state post-conviction petition. Among the grounds he cited was that Judge Maloney had been bribed before the trial, had returned the bribe money, and had convicted Fields and his co-defendant Hawkins to deflect suspicion. In 1996, a Cook County judge vacated Fields's conviction on the ground that his due process rights had been violated due to the bribery episode. The Illinois Supreme Court upheld that ruling in 1998. See People v. Hawkins, 181 Ill.2d 41, 690 N.E.2d 999 (1998). The prosecution continued to pursue the case, the retrial of which was delayed for an extended period, partly due to interlocutory appeals following the remand for a new trial. In 2009, Fields was acquitted after a second bench trial, held before Judge Deborah Dooling.

In the present case, filed in 2010, Fields asserts claims against three former and present Chicago police officers, the City of Chicago, and a former Cook County prosecutor under 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983 for violation of due process and conspiracy to violate his due process rights and under state law for malicious prosecution and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Trial before a jury began on March 10, 2013. The Court declared a mistrial on March 18, 2013 and then set the case for retrial on April 7, 2013.

Fields thereafter filed a document entitled "Notice of Claim Removal" in which he said he was "modif[ying] his claim for malicious prosecution, " by "withdraw[ing] his claim for malicious prosecution for the 2009 trial." Pl.'s Notice of Claim Removal (dkt. no. 610) at 1. Fields went on to state in this filing that as a result of the modification, the testimony of defense witnesses Trammel Davis, Jackie Clay, Eugene Hunter, and Derrick Keys should not be allowed at the retrial, because it concerns, at most, the 2009 retrial. The latter request echoed a request to exclude that same testimony in a motion in limine that Fields had filed during the first trial (his motion in limine 11).

Following receipt of Fields's notice, the Court entered an order stating that it did not believe Fields was entitled under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(a) to unilaterally withdraw a claim at this stage of the case. The Court proposed to address this at the pretrial conference held on April 3, 2013, but the City of Chicago defendants asked to file a written response, so the Court deferred ruling. In their response, the Chicago defendants argue that Fields cannot withdraw what they contend is just part of a single claim of malicious prosecution and that in any event, the withdrawal of the supposed "claim" relating to the 2009 trial would not affect the admissibility of the testimony of Davis, Clay, Hunter, and Keys. Fields has filed a reply to the response. The Court has considered all of these submissions.

1. Fields's request to withdraw a claim

The first question is whether Fields can do what he says he wants to do, namely "withdraw his claim for malicious prosecution for the 2009 trial." The problem is that there is no such "claim." Fields has not asserted two separate malicious prosecution claims. Rather, he has asserted a single malicious prosecution claim, challenging his prosecution for murder in state court. There was a single prosecution of him for murder, albeit one that ultimately involved two trials. There were not two separate criminal cases.

Fields cannot logically split his malicious prosecution claim in two based on the fact that there were two trials, even though the second was held long after the first. The vacating of his 1986 conviction did not terminate the criminal proceedings. Rather, it put the proceedings back where they had been before the first trial. The criminal prosecution continued after that. The continued proceedings were part of the original case, not a separate case. It is worth noting that were one to treat the murder case as two separate cases, one tried in 1986 and the other tried in 2009, Fields would not be able to prevail on his malicious prosecution claim, because the first "case" did not end in his favor in the way required to prevail on a claim of malicious prosecution. Rather, Fields was still at jeopardy of conviction for the same murders for which he was first tried in 1986.

Fields addresses this point in a way that effectively undermines his own argument that he can split the malicious prosecution claim in two. He argues on the one hand that in pursuing a malicious prosecution case just based on the original conviction in 1986, he should be permitted to put in evidence of his 2009 acquittal in order to satisfy the favorable termination requirement. On the other hand, he argues that additional evidence, not available in 1986, that is claimed to have supported his ongoing prosecution after the post-conviction reversal is irrelevant, because it was not available at the time of his 1986 conviction. In other words, Fields essentially is trying to have it both ways. He is not entitled to do so. Either the entire criminal case was a single proceeding, in which case Fields cannot cut it off at a point he finds favorable from an evidentiary standpoint, or it was two separate proceedings, in which case his malicious prosecution claim as to the first of the two proceedings would fail because that proceeding did not result in a favorable termination (rather, it resulted only in an order for a new trial).

The Court concludes that there was just one criminal proceeding, which did not terminate until Fields was acquitted in 2009. It is worth noting in this regard that a malicious prosecution claim does not even accrue until the underlying proceeding is terminated in the favor of the malicious prosecution plaintiff. See, e.g., Ferguson v. City of Chicago, 213 Ill.2d 94, 99, 820 N.E.2d 455, 459 (2004). In short, Fields did not even have a viable malicious prosecution claim until he was acquitted in 2009.

In his reply, Fields cites a case saying that probable cause to arrest exists only if, at the time of the arrest, the matters known to the officer are sufficient to warrant a reasonable person to believe that the suspect had committed, was committing, or is about to commit an offense. See Fields Reply at 4. That is true, but it is beside the point. Malicious prosecution and false arrest are two different types of claims. A claim of false arrest is focused on the arrest and thus necessarily is determined based on what is known at that time. Malicious prosecution, by contrast, concerns whether there is probable cause to support the prosecution, and not necessarily just at the outset. The law is clear that the tort of malicious prosecution concerns not only the commencement of criminal proceedings but also the continuation of such proceedings. See, e.g., Swick v. Liautaud, 169 Ill.2d 504, 512, 662 N.E.2d 1238, 1242 (1996) (reciting elements of malicious prosecution)

For these reasons, the Court concludes that Fields cannot modify his claim in the way he proposes.

2. Admission of testimony by Davis, Clay, Hunter, and Kees

The Court will, however, go on to address the remaining points raised by Fields and the Chicago defendants, concerning the admissibility of the testimony of Davis, Clay, Hunter, and Kees. As noted earlier, this request echoes a motion in limine that Fields filed during the first trial. Thus the request touches upon issues that will come up in the trial one way or the other. Indeed, had the first trial continued beyond March 18, the Court would have had to rule upon the motion in limine within the next day or two. Thus the issues are not hypothetical or "advisory, " as the Chicago defendants contended at the pretrial conference.

The Chicago defendants contend that the testimony of Davis, Clay, Hunter, and Kees is properly admissible for various purposes. By way of background, the testimony of these witnesses bears on Fields's claimed involvement in the Smith/Hickman murders. The Chicago defendants make ...

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