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What’s
the Price
of Justice?

For Jon Loevy, go-to lawyer for the wrongfully convicted, that’s the multimillion-dollar question.

Photo of Loevy in illustration: Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune

Pacing the hallway in a black suit and lavender shirt, a pencil-thin mustache adorning his upper lip, Jacques Rivera accepts good wishes from family and friends as people pour into the federal courtroom — so many that a security officer has to direct the overflow crowd elsewhere to watch a video simulcast of opening arguments. The 53-year-old plaintiff isn’t eager to relive the nightmare at the heart of this civil case, he says, “but it’s going to close a chapter of my life.” And if he wins, the financial award could be substantial.

The attorney looking to secure that compensation, Jon Loevy, is cooling his heels nearby. He and his co-counsel filed Rivera v. Guevara et al. six years ago to the day, on June 7, 2012, so Loevy considers himself more than ready. His hair wiry, his build wiry, his energy wired, his dark gray suit hanging on him as if it weren’t completely familiar with his body, Loevy cuts a scrappier figure than that of James Sotos, the opposing lead attorney representing multiple retired Chicago police officers. Sotos stands a head taller, with neatly groomed dark hair that squares with his polished veneer.

If Loevy, 50, looks like the little guy taking on the big guys defending the police and the City of Chicago, that’s fine with him. He is, he declares in his clipped rasp, “very confident.”

Does he feel that way before every trial?

“Not infrequently. I’m usually right.”

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As Loevy steps into the courtroom, his father, Arthur — who has worked with him at Loevy & Loevy since they started the law firm with Jon’s wife in 1998 — removes his watch and places it on his son’s wrist, a pretrial ritual of theirs. They take their places: Arthur on a spectators’ bench to the left, Jon at the long table closest to the jury box, alongside Rivera and other lawyers from Loevy & Loevy and Northwestern University’s MacArthur Justice Center. Three teams of defense lawyers and more than 10 police officer defendants populate the tables to the right.

The most prominent of those defendants is Reynaldo Guevara, a 75-year-old retired detective. Dressed in a gray plaid sweater, wearing dark-rimmed glasses, and clutching a Bible, he has been accused in multiple civil suits of running a corruption racket in largely Hispanic neighborhoods on the West Side in the 1980s and 1990s. Allegations against him include tying innocent people to murder cases, accepting bribes from gang members to interfere with murder investigations, and collecting protection money from drug dealers. Eighteen men put away by Guevara have seen their convictions overturned, and petitions on behalf of more prisoners have been filed.

Pretty much everyone in the courtroom today agrees on this: On August 27, 1988, Rivera did not walk up to a car in a Northwest Side alley and pump 10 bullets into 16-year-old Felix Valentin. He should not have been convicted of Valentin’s murder. He should not have spent 21 years inside Stateville Correctional Center — missing the childhood, adolescence, and early-adult years of his three kids — before being exonerated and released in 2011.

Over a tense three and a half weeks, the attorneys in this high-stakes civil trial will not dispute any of that. Just about everything else, though, is fair game as Loevy and his colleagues try, as they’ve done successfully many times before, to win millions of dollars in compensation from the city and police defendants. Loevy has already won more than $100 million in civil trial verdicts for wrongful conviction and police misconduct cases against the city (see “Loevy’s Big Wins,” below), including that of a previous Guevara exoneree, Juan Johnson, who was awarded $21 million in 2009. Loevy counts more than a dozen other Guevara exonerees as clients — a lineup of potential and ongoing lawsuits that could become a fiscal nightmare for the city, rivaling the more than $100 million paid in police torture cases involving disgraced former Chicago police commander Jon Burge. Loevy’s victories are celebrated by civil rights activists but are anathema to the financially challenged city.

A lot of cops have strong feelings about Jon Loevy, and the Rivera trial won’t do anything to endear him to them, even as Loevy stresses in his opening argument that the police have a tough job and this case is not against the department. “All we’re saying is people should be accountable for their mistakes,” Loevy tells the jury. “One of the things you have to decide in this case is how to make Jacques whole.”

The task before Loevy and his co-counsel, MacArthur Justice Center executive director Locke Bowman, will not be to prove their client’s innocence — Rivera already received a certificate attesting to that from a Cook County Circuit Court judge in 2012 — but rather to convince the two men and nine women of this federal jury (a 12th juror dropped out) that Rivera’s ordeal was the defendants’ fault and that they owe him considerable damages for those 21 lost years.

How Loevy and his team will do this essentially comes down to storytelling. Loevy likens himself to the director of a play, tasked with crafting a coherent, persuasive narrative from the testimony of both friendly and hostile witnesses and from the content of hundreds of files and depositions. Although Bowman describes Loevy as “one of the most intellectually effective cross-examiners I’ve ever witnessed,” he says his co-counsel’s greatest strength may be his ability to distill complicated information into a coherent version of events that a jury believes.

Loevy puts it this way: “It’s got to have a beginning, middle, and end. It’s got to make sense. It’s got to keep people’s attention.”

 

Civil rights law, by and large, was not considered a lucrative practice until Loevy started winning multimillion-dollar verdicts. Way more people in prison claim to be innocent than actually are, and few of those who are wrongly incarcerated have the resources to do much about their predicament. Seeking justice for such folks has long been the realm of nonprofit groups, such as Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions and the New York City–based Innocence Project.

“The civil rights practice has historically attracted people not driven by money but by the social justice paradigm,” Bowman says. “Civil rights lawyers, to paint with a broad brush, tended to be more wonky, less flashy. Jon’s not wonky — or flashy — yet remarkably charismatic in court.”

He’s also managed to make a lot more money than your typical civil rights lawyer, not that Loevy sees that point as diminishing the righteousness of his practice. “There are a lot of nonprofits doing really good, important work, and they’re trying to make the world better,” Loevy explains over an outdoor taco lunch a few blocks from his office. “My firm is a for-profit business. So what we’ve done is aligned taking cases that are going to make more justice with a financial profit motive. And it’s working.”

Loevy prefers to take cases to trial rather than to settle. And he tends to win. At one point, Loevy says, he was on the right side of 23 straight verdicts. His love of pushing his chips all in, he says, springs from a lineage of professional gamblers in Kentucky. “Every bet, if the odds favor you, you should take it.”

“He accepts risk like almost nobody I’ve seen before,” says Loevy’s wife, Danielle, who met him when applying for an internship in Chicago with Milton Shadur, a federal judge for whom Jon was clerking. Loevy & Loevy works strictly on contingency, collecting money only when a defendant does; the firm’s cut varies from case to case but tends to fall between 33 and 40 percent, Loevy says. He estimates that the firm spent $250,000 to $500,000 preparing Rivera’s case, including paying for the time of expert witnesses, plus millions of dollars’ worth of lawyer hours — money the firm will never recoup unless it wins. “You lose, you lose it all,” Loevy says. “It’s not for the faint of heart.”

For Loevy, a state champion debater while at Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, the risk taking began after graduating from Columbia Law School and doing his clerkship. He spent his version of a gap year traveling the world, primarily around Central America, Asia, and the Middle East — a trip that, he says, opened his eyes to how justice works and doesn’t work away from the United States. “If you live in other parts of the world and people experience deprivations of their civil rights, too bad, so sad,” Loevy says. “Here you can go to court and have 12 citizens decide if you were mistreated by these public officials. That’s really a wonderful thing that nobody should take for granted.”

Upon his return, he worked at Sidley Austin, one of the city’s high-powered firms, dealing with “big corporate clients fighting big cases involving a lot of money.” Although the experience was good training, he says, “I knew very quickly that it wasn’t for me.” Loevy left after about a year and a half to start his own civil-rights-focused firm with his wife and father, at first working out of his Lake View garden apartment. His early Loevy & Loevy cases involved employment discrimination and complaints about police treatment, but he soon realized that without the cachet of a big law firm, he was viewed with little deference by opposing lawyers and judges. “People treat you like you don’t have a clue and why should they even be talking to you,” Loevy says. “So you’ve got to figure out how to win.”

Sotos, who opposed Loevy multiple times before the Rivera trial, took notice of him in those early days. “He didn’t always have the best cases or the best facts, but he would pursue them with the same kind of relentlessness even then. If you do that with enough cases, you’re going to start to get results.”

The breakthrough came in 1999, when Loevy represented Joseph Regalado, who was paralyzed after, he claimed, police beat him in an alley. Arthur Loevy recalls that other firms had declined to take the case because “the young man had a bit of a past, and police officers told what to them sounded like a credible story” but his son “proved to a jury’s satisfaction that it was not.”

That jury came back with a $28 million verdict, at the time the largest civil rights award against the city for an individual. With that surge of money and publicity, Loevy was able to hire more lawyers. More victories soon followed.

“If you look at the big verdicts, he’s dominating that landscape,” says Andrew Hale, who has represented Chicago police officers in several high-profile cases brought by Loevy. “This area of the law, when he got into it, was not a popular plaintiff’s area. He’s had a big impact with some of these verdicts, spawning, I think, a lot more of this litigation.”

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Police misconduct lawsuits have become a political football here, with mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot hammering Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration over the more than half a billion dollars  paid out by the city over the past seven years in such cases. “If I’m lucky enough to become mayor, I hope to put Jon Loevy out of business,” Lightfoot says. “To me it’s not about Jon. It’s about the failing of an administration to get a handle on a very big, costly problem.”

Walter Katz, Chicago’s deputy chief of staff for public safety, won’t discuss Loevy specifically but acknowledges that those lawsuits cost the city dearly. “We are working hard at decreasing those outlays,” he says. “Not only is it a cost to the taxpayer, but it also decreases trust across the community.” He points to the city’s $27 million investment this year in police reforms, training, and other improvements.

For his part, Loevy says he’d love for the city to quit giving him reasons to do battle. “If the City of Chicago ever stopped violating people’s rights and wrongfully convicting people and nobody ever got shot without justification, I guess we’d be out of business. But until then we’re going to do what we do.”

He cites numerous smaller cases he has taken — such as that of a teacher arrested for obstruction of justice when he questioned police officers who were pulling over his black students — as evidence that his mission is more about justice than money. To Danielle Loevy, who’s no longer at the firm, her husband’s big wins, though certainly lucrative, have had little impact on their family of five, who live on an unassuming block near Lincoln Square. “The amount of money he had or didn’t have has never entered into the equation of how he wants to live,” she says. “He’s going to eat the same amount of Chinese food, and he’s still not going to shop for clothes. We’ve never flown first class. We’ve never gone business class. It’s hard for him to justify that jump in ticket price.”

Loevy & Loevy now has 40 lawyers, most in Chicago but some in Boston, Washington, D.C., and Colorado. The firm is currently working on more than 200 cases, some big, some small. Six to 10 of those will go to trial each year, with Loevy usually the lead litigator on the biggest ones (and his partner and cousin, Michael Kanovitz, also doing much of the firm’s heavy lifting). The firm’s West Loop headquarters also house the Exoneration Project, a legal clinic associated with the University of Chicago Law School and staffed, in part, by Loevy & Loevy attorneys.

Loevy designed the office himself, with its open floor plan, exposed brick walls, large windows, and main hallway lined with framed newspaper pages touting the firm’s victories. The lawyers, including Loevy, dress casually. Dogs, babies, and pizza are often present.

“As soon as I went into the firm, it felt different,” says Juan Johnson, who, uncomfortable at a more formal firm, was referred to Loevy & Loevy for his civil lawsuit. “I saw young paralegals sitting on the floor doing their work. I felt at ease going there.”

The way Loevy discussed Johnson’s wrongful imprisonment with him also won him over. “He said, ‘We need you to talk about this because this is how we figure out damages,’ ” Johnson recalls. “To me it was like admitting weakness. I didn’t want to talk about how they hurt me, but he got me to open up, to admit that I needed help.”

Johnson was surprised the city decided to take his case to trial: “They could have just offered me $2 to $5 million, and I would have taken it and left.” But Loevy says the city never offered more than $100,000. “They said, ‘You’re not going to win,’ ” he remembers. “We said, ‘Yes, we are,’ and we did. All the big verdicts have a story that they failed to settle.”

Loevy gives the Emanuel administration credit for being more “cost-benefit rational” than Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration, but during a meeting with Rivera in his office a couple of weeks before the trial, he still couldn’t understand why the city wasn’t settling that case.

“Jacques’s going to kill them,” Loevy said.

“God willing,” Rivera added.

Jacques Rivera after his 1988 arrest Photo: Courtesy of The Chicago Police Department
Hugging family members after his 2011 release Photo: Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune
With Loevy in June, after a civil court jury awarded him $17 million Photo: Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune
 

The story that Loevy tells at Rivera’s trial goes like this: After Felix Valentin was shot and then taken, still alive, to the hospital, police canvassed the neighborhood and located just one eyewitness: a 12-year-old boy, Orlando Lopez. The earliest police report noted that when the shooting took place, Lopez was “by the store” — almost 200 feet away, by the Loevy team’s measurement, though other versions of his story would put him closer to the scene. The sequence of events gets murkier after that, with wrong or changed dates appearing on several police reports, but the upshot is that the boy reportedly picked out Rivera from an array of photos presented to him by Guevara, then a gang crimes specialist.

Loevy contends that Guevara directed the young witness to identify Rivera, a Latin Kings member, even though Valentin, from his hospital bed, ID’ed from a photo an Imperial Gangsters member as the shooter. Rivera says he was brought in for two lineups, the first of which resulted in his being released, presumably because he was not identified as a suspect. (The defense would claim this lineup never took place. Loevy asserts that the police routinely didn’t report lineups that failed to result in an ID.)

But after Valentin died on September 14 — 19 days after the shooting — a police report was created saying that Guevara and another officer had visited Valentin on September 10 and he had fingered Rivera that time, even though doctors’ reports indicate that Valentin was in a coma by then. Brought back to the police station for a subsequent lineup, Lopez allegedly told one or two people there (he was vague about whom) that he’d just seen the actual shooter playing baseball in Humboldt Park. But he somehow identified Rivera in the lineup anyway.

Rivera’s lawyer opted for a bench trial, and in April 1990, after less than two full days of proceedings, in which the boy and Guevara testified against Rivera but no physical evidence was presented, the judge found Rivera guilty. Subsequent appeals failed.

It wasn’t until 2010, after one of Rivera’s many letters from prison got the attention of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, that two lawyers from the nonprofit visited Lopez at his home in Ohio. He admitted that he had picked the wrong guy. The conviction was subsequently overturned, and Rivera was released.

When the defense lawyers present their side of the case, they blame Lopez for Rivera’s imprisonment. “This case is about an eyewitness who made a mistake and turned that mistake into a lie,” says Joseph Polick, a member of Sotos’s firm. Thomas Leinenweber, the attorney representing Guevara and his superior, former sergeant Edward Mingey, echoes this thought: “The truth is, they’re Orlando’s lies and his alone.”

In sheer storytelling terms, Loevy has an advantage: He is presenting a relatively clear narrative, while the other side tries to poke holes in his version of events. Whereas the defense’s probing of technical matters is often plodding, Loevy cuts to the chase with his rat-a-tat-tat delivery. The court reporter has to ask him to slow down more than once.

Loevy calls Rivera to the stand on the first afternoon. The plaintiff chokes up as he recalls being pronounced guilty and not being allowed to say goodbye to his mother, girlfriend, or kids — “hauled away like a criminal, like a monster.” He also cries as he recalls the judge telling him, 21 years later, “You’re free to go home.”

“I had no clothes to walk out in,” Rivera says. “I went downstairs, and they gave me another inmate’s clothing and shoes.” Rivera, who now has a job delivering medical supplies for Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, goes on to describe the months of fear and paranoia that followed his release as he adjusted to all that had changed in the world between 1990 and 2011.

Loevy is more combative with other witnesses, particularly as he questions the defendants about the veracity of their reports. He works the opposing lawyers’ nerves as well. A few days into the trial, with the jury out of the room, Sotos complains to Judge Joan Gottschall, “I’ve tried a lot of civil cases. These are shenanigans.”

Sotos and Loevy have been arguing over the possibility of Lopez, now in his early 40s and still living in Ohio, being called to testify. Lopez sat for a video deposition in 2013, but Loevy wants the witness to appear on the stand despite Lopez’s stated resistance. Sotos suspects his legal adversary has actually lined up Lopez to appear but isn’t showing his cards.

“We want him to testify,” Loevy says. “Either he will or he won’t.”

“This is all gamesmanship,” Sotos huffs.

Was Loevy indeed pulling shenanigans? “Definitely not,” he says in an email the following morning. “I think the other side was frustrated with how the trial was going. The complaint was not even coherent — when the trial ends, I suspect if you speak to Mr. Sotos, he did not seriously mean that our side was doing anything improper, inappropriate, or even unusual, which is exactly what the judge kept telling him.” (When asked after the trial about this episode, Sotos declines to discuss it.) In any event, Lopez does not testify in person, and his video deposition ends up supporting and contradicting elements of both the plaintiff’s and the defense’s cases.

This is far from the only testy exchange in the objection-filled proceedings. During another discussion without the jury present, Jeffrey Given, a lawyer from Sotos’s firm, accuses Loevy of lying about what seems like a mundane matter involving the order in which witnesses will testify. Loevy bristles afterward at having his integrity challenged, but he allows: “I definitely get under people’s skin.”

As Hale says during an interview in his downtown law office: “Jon can be a frustrating opponent at times. A lot of lawyers maybe find him annoying because he will keep talking or keep pressing an issue with a witness, but you have to use that to your advantage instead of getting distracted or upset. You can tell he doesn’t get nervous. If he doesn’t get the answer he wants, he’ll ask the question five times.”

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Sometimes Loevy’s mouth gets him in trouble, such as during a 2015 hearing before Judge Matthew Kennelly of the U.S. District Court in a case in which Loevy represented the estate of an exoneree who was released from prison after 21 years, got rearrested, and hanged himself in jail. After some back-and-forth wrangling among the lawyers, Kennelly said, according to the court transcript, “Mr. Loevy, with all due respect, you are way, way too free with flinging around accusations of misconduct about lawyers. You are way, way too free with it. It does not speak well of you that you do that.”

At the same time, Loevy has made fans of other judges, including James Holderman, a now-retired U.S. District Court judge who wrote in a 2003 decision on an excessive force case: “Jon Loevy’s overall performance ranks among the finest displays of courtroom work by a plaintiff’s lead trial counsel that this court has presided over in several years.”

With Loevy, some level of strategic poker playing always seems to be at work. Rob Warden, executive director emeritus of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, recalls that after a jury awarded punitive damages against police officers in a case won by Loevy, he offered to waive those damages if they formally acknowledged their wrongdoing and apologized. “I remember seeing this and thinking it was brilliant,” Warden says, explaining that the move would dramatically improve Loevy’s position on appeal.

Loevy’s persistence is on full display on day five of the Rivera trial, when Guevara takes the stand. “Isn’t it true that you intentionally and knowingly violated Jacques Rivera’s constitutional rights?” Loevy asks the retired detective.

“Upon the advice of counsel,” Guevara replies deliberately, “I respectfully decline to answer the question on the grounds that I’m being compelled to be a witness against myself.”

Loevy is prepared for this, having informed jurors at the outset of the trial that Guevara would likely invoke the Fifth Amendment to protect himself against self-incrimination. He also told them that in a civil case they’re allowed to draw negative conclusions from a defendant declining to answer questions in this way.

Now Loevy asks whether Guevara framed Rivera by manipulating evidence, whether he had a “well-founded fear” of being prosecuted for perjury if he denied misconduct in light of the investigations against him, and whether he agreed that he could take the Fifth only if his truthful testimony would implicate him in a crime.

To each of these, Guevara responds: “Upon the advice of counsel, I respectfully decline to answer the question on the grounds that I’m being compelled to be a witness against myself.” After more than 30 such responses, the judge tells Guevara he can say “Same answer” to speed things up.

Loevy keeps going , presenting, in the form of questions, his take on the entire case while also summarizing other misconduct allegations against Guevara.

“That is something you did over and over again: You manipulated identifications until the witness stopped on the people who you were interested in?”

“Same answer.”

Valentin’s alleged identification of Rivera when the victim reportedly was in a coma was “just a bald-faced complete and total lie, wasn’t it?”

“Same answer.”

In more than an hour on the stand, Guevara invokes the Fifth more than 200 times. The defense is not happy that the judge gave Loevy so much leeway in his exhaustive line of questioning, and Guevara’s attorney moves for a mistrial on that basis. The judge denies him.

At the end of the day, Loevy tells me that he and the city are continuing to discuss a possible settlement but have not closed the gap between offers. “They’re looking at checkmate,” he says in an email, “and are going to have to come to our number before it goes up.”

 
Jon Loevy with Ronald Watts
Loevy in July, not long after the Rivera verdict, with exonerees who have sued another Chicago police officer, Ronald Watts Photo: Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

The police defendants in Rivera’s case would not talk to me about Loevy during or after the trial, but evidence of police animosity toward Loevy is not hard to find. Here is an anonymous post published in 2007 on the now-defunct police blog Second City Sarge, under the headline “Jon Loevy Makes Me Sick”:

Jon Loevy is one of the most well to do ambulance chasers in the city. All he needs is some “citizen” to go into his office and claim he was beaten by the police, and Jon sees $$$$. … One day a member of the “down trodden” is going to have a pistol pressed up against Jon Loevy’s pretentious little head demanding every penny he has, and while he is pissing his pants, he will be begging for two things: his life and a cop. Oh well, we can always dream.

And here’s a message posted a few years later on the comments board of another blog, Second City Cop, in response to a post about Loevy & Loevy filing a lawsuit involving a police shooting in Humboldt Park:

Been before those scumbag lawyers/liars twice in the past. Calling them bottom feeders is an insult to bottom feeders. … Here’s to making your millions off the backs of the City taxpayers you … rotten pieces of shit!

None of this seems to bother Loevy, who maintains that not all cops abhor his efforts. “Some people hate me when I walk in the room, especially a lot of police officers. But I decided a long time ago I’m not here to make friends.”

Martin Preib, the vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police Chicago Lodge 7 and its frequent spokesman, has been an outspoken critic of Loevy’s firm and has often accused Chicago’s media of allegedly colluding with him in wrongful-conviction cases. When I emailed Preib to ask whether he might comment on Loevy for this article, he gave a one-word reply: “No.” After I pressed further, he emailed a rudimentary drawing of Loevy as an impish-looking shepherd standing among sheep labeled Zorn, Meisner, Crepeau, Hinkel, and Grimm — all last names of local newspaper reporters.

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One recurrent complaint from police and their attorneys is that the people Loevy defends aren’t the good guys. Thaddeus Jimenez, for whom Loevy won $25 million in 2012 for wrongful conviction, now sits in prison again, having used his windfall “to rejuvenate his old gang, paying recruitment bonuses, buying guns and fancy cars, and even giving cash prizes to members willing to tattoo their faces with the Simon City Royals insignia,” the Tribune reported. Last year, a judge sentenced Jimenez to more than nine years in prison for shooting an ex–gang member in both thighs, an act that was captured on videotape.

Loevy acknowledges that many of his clients have “shaky backgrounds” and criminal histories. He points out, though, that such people are more likely to be targeted by cops. “Not everybody is super squeaky innocent, but that doesn’t mean their rights weren’t violated. … Some of the people who have made mistakes suffered decades of wrongful imprisonment that have left them irreparably broken.” For instance, Jimenez, just 13 when he was arrested, “learned how to be a man in an incarcerated setting.”

Karen Daniel, the director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, says that while she’d prefer a system in which exonerees didn’t have to fight for just compensation, she’s “absolutely thrilled” when one of these big verdicts comes down on their behalf. “The enormity of what they’ve lost and what their families have lost, it’s unfathomable,” she says. “No matter how much money they get, it’s not enough.”

But Hale, who frequently represents the police in such cases, contends that Loevy’s righteousness is often misplaced. He says that every time he has opposed Loevy in court, including in the Jimenez case, he has believed that the police officers did not engage in any misconduct: “Obviously, wrongful convictions exist, but, having defended some of these cases, it happens a lot less than plaintiffs lead you to believe. I’m often telling Jon his clients have committed the crimes they were accused of. He’ll say, ‘No, they didn’t,’ and we’ll have that running debate.”

Hale adds: “I think he’s winning a lot of these cases not on the merits but based on his trial skills.” Yet, Hale says, Loevy and his team “always present themselves like they’re morally superior.”

To this Loevy counters: “We get to pick our cases. He doesn’t. Of course justice is on our side.”

 

Loevy’s closing argument in Rivera’s case is a one-two punch: First he systematically runs through each count to break down how Guevara and his fellow officers violated Rivera’s rights, then Bowman steps up with an impassioned case for damages as he details his client’s suffering amid audible crying from Rivera, his son, and other family members. “Add in every single day that he didn’t get to be the father to his children that he wanted to be,” Bowman tells jurors.

Loevy concludes by asking the jury for $1 million to $2 million per year for the 21 years that Rivera spent in prison.

In its closing argument, the defense asks the jury to consider the lack of evidence and urges them not to be swayed by sympathy. Sotos also points out that Rivera didn’t suffer any atrocities while in prison and argues that if the jury decides to rule against his clients, damages of $100,000 to $200,000 per year would be “more commensurate” with this type of claim.

Loevy leaps from his seat for his final rebuttal, faces the jury, and gestures toward the well-dressed contingent of defense lawyers. Would any of them accept $100,000 a year to live in prison?

The objections ring out, but Loevy has made his point,

“Mr. Rivera is not here seeking sympathy,” Loevy tells the jury. “Mr. Rivera is here seeking justice.”

The following morning, the judge gives the jurors their instructions, and they disappear behind closed doors. They return the next day just after lunchtime. As the participants, friends, and family members make their way back to the courtroom, the judge comes out to tell the waiting lawyers that about an hour earlier the jury members had made one request: They wanted a calculator.

Loevy’s faces brightens. “There are worse jury questions than ‘Could I see a calculator?’ ” he tells me.

Once all are assembled — aside from Guevara, who has not returned — Rivera sits with his forehead pressed into his fists, and the judge reads the jury’s verdict, one count at a time. From the moment the word “plaintiff” comes out of her mouth, Rivera is sobbing. The counts of violation of due process, conspiracy, and failure to intervene go against three of the four officer defendants still in the case; the fourth, Detective Gillian McLaughlin, is cleared on all counts. (The other eight were dismissed by Loevy during the course of the trial.) An additional count of intentional infliction of emotional distress goes against Guevara. The jury also rules against the city on a count that holds its policies partly responsible.

For all this, the jury awards $17 million in compensatory damages, plus, from the three officers, $175,000 in total punitive damages.

Loevy wraps his arm around a tearful Rivera, and Bowman and the rest of the legal team join in a group hug while the lawyers and defendants on the other side of the room sit stoically.

“We got him! We got him!” Rivera crows as he exits the courtroom. He pulls on a black T-shirt that reads “Trust & Believe.” To a large group of friends and family assembled in the waiting area by the elevator, Rivera cries, “Twenty-one years, and this guy kept me away from my family!”

Rivera, some of his family, Loevy, and his crew cab it over to the Loevy & Loevy office, where pizza and beer await.

“Oh, Jon, man, thank you so much,” Rivera says after they arrive.

“Thank you for trusting me,” Loevy responds.

As Rivera celebrates amid a crowd that includes Daniel of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, Loevy retreats to his office without so much as a drink or bite of pizza. The verdict is for a lot of money — enough for Loevy to say it’s in the top 10 of wrongful conviction awards nationwide — yet it’s a bit less than he asked for, and he’s a competitive guy. Still, he calls the sum “very fair, very appropriate”: “We had a game plan, we executed it, and it worked.”

He’s not done with Guevara either. “This becomes a good bellwether because we have more cases like this coming down the pike.”

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Loevy reveals that up through the third day of testimony in the almost-four-week trial, he was offering to settle with the city for $11.5 million plus legal costs; after that, his number went up to $16 million. The city, he says, stood firm at $12 million and no legal costs. (Having lost the case, the city must pay the plaintiff’s legal fees and expenses, which, Loevy estimates, will total $4 million to $6 million.) Lawyers representing the city and police officers declined to comment about the negotiations.

As the celebration continues down the hall, Loevy’s office is quiet. Rivera might not receive his money for another year or two, depending on what the defense does next (in late August it petitioned the judge to overturn the verdict, with an appeal being the next logical step), but for now Loevy can take a breath.

“We feel vindicated,” he says. “One side or the other was miscalculating, and it wasn’t us.”

Then he adds, with the kind of bravado that drives his opponents crazy: “I feel lucky I have a job where if all goes well, justice happens. What more could you ask for?”

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