A longtime Cook County prosecutor now running for a seat on the bench was chided by a U.S. District judge in 2016 for falsely testifying in a federal civil rights trial about past testimony of a gang expert.
U.S. Northern District Judge Matthew F. Kennelly halted testimony when Brian T. Sexton told a civil jury that a gang expert had testified during the murder trial of Nathson Fields that “the only way you rise up” in the El Rukn street gang “is through violence.”
While Fields maintained his innocence throughout, he had told police after his arrest that he was a gang member and had risen within the gang. Sexton contended those promotions, coupled with the gang expert testimony, showed Fields was willing to commit violence to move up.
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Kennelly reviewed the trial transcript and said outside the jury’s presence that there was no such testimony from the gang expert, “none, zero, zip, nada.”
Beginning on February 21, Cook County voters started heading to the polls to winnow down the field of 110 judicial primary candidates vying to fill 39 vacancies on the bench. For the majority of races in which there is no partisan contest, the primary elections serve as the final word in who will become a judge in Cook County. This article is part of Injustice Watch‘s continuing coverage prior to the March elections.
Attorney Shelly B. Kulwin, representing one of the Chicago police officers named in the lawsuit, had been questioning Sexton when he made the gang expert statement. Kulwin told the judge Sexton’s statement “came out of nowhere,” and later suggested Sexton could tell jurors that “he was inaccurate,” and that “he could apologize.” Kennelly disagreed, however, and told attorneys that he, not the lawyers, would take charge of correcting the record.
Kennelly then called the jury back. “The witness gave testimony that their gang crimes expert testified that the only way you rise up is through violence,” Kennelly told jurors. “That testimony is incorrect. There was no such testimony at Mr. Fields’s 2009 trial. I have read it myself.”
The issue arose during the long-running court saga of Fields, a former El Rukn gang member whose arrest and death sentence for a double murder led to two criminal trials and three civil trials before Fields ultimately won a $22 million jury verdict.
The 2009 trial, with Sexton as prosecutor, came after Fields and co-defendant Earl Hawkins had won new trials after both were convicted and sentenced to death for the 1984 murders of Talman Hickman and Jerome Smith. The new trials were ordered after evidence surfaced that the trial judge, Cook County Judge Thomas J. Maloney, had retracted his offer to accept a bribe in the case when he suspected he was under FBI investigation.
Prior to the retrial, two witnesses recanted their testimony against Fields. That left Hawkins, his former co-defendant, to make a deal with prosecutors and become the key witness against Fields. After hearing Hawkins testify that he had committed 15 to 20 murders while a gang member, and that he once said he would say anything to get off death row, Circuit Court Judge Vincent M. Gaughan found Hawkins not credible and acquitted Fields of the murders.
Fields then filed a civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court, contending he had been wrongly convicted and prosecuted for the murders. The first trial was aborted when a witness blurted out an answer that was supposed to be kept from the jury.
Judge Kennelly overturned the verdict in the second case – an $80,000 award in 2014 – after finding that Sexton, Assistant U.S. Attorney William R. Hogan and two Chicago police officers had opened the door for Hawkins to receive significant benefits – getting out of custody years early – after he testified at the 2014 retrial of the civil case against Fields.
In 1989, Hawkins had agreed to racketeering and narcotics charges in return for a 60-year sentence. In 2002, he agreed to plead guilty to state charges in return for two 42-year state sentences, to run concurrently to the federal charges. In 2013, that agreement was amended to cut the sentence to 78 years total, and to say explicitly that Hawkins was not to be held in state custody once he was freed from federal custody.
The 2014 civil jury heard that Hawkins was expected to remain in custody until 2026. But soon after that civil trial ended, Sexton as well as the assistant U.S. attorney and police officers named in the lawsuit wrote letters to the U.S. Parole Commission urging early release for Hawkins. Sexton and the other authorities cited Hawkins’s cooperation in supporting his request for parole.
Then, just three months after he testified in the civil trial, the commission agreed to grant Hawkins parole.
Because the revised agreement provided that Hawkins was not to serve additional time in state custody, he became a free man. That revision, Kennelly wrote in his opinion, became a “bonanza” for Hawkins, and misled the jury about the circumstances of Hawkins’s cooperation. “Given Hawkins’ significance as a witness,” Kennelly wrote, “this would have cut at the heart of the defendants’ case.”
He ordered a new trial, which occurred in 2016, at which Kennelly criticized Sexton over his description of testimony by a gang expert. The jury awarded Fields $22 million.
Sexton retired from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office as chief of the narcotics bureau weeks later.
The Chicago Council of Lawyers, a bar group that evaluates judges, found Sexton not qualified for a judicial post this week because of a series of cases in which the appellate court overturned convictions based on his conduct. The Illinois State Bar Association, however, deemed him qualified.
Sexton did not respond to requests for comment. This is his second attempt at a judicial seat since 2008.