Federal jury awards $25.2 million to Chicago man wrongfully convicted in 1994 double murder in possible record verdict

In what may be a record for a wrongful conviction case, a federal jury on Friday awarded $25.2 million to a man who claimed Chicago police detectives railroaded him in a 1994 double murder investigation that put him behind bars for nearly 23 years.

The jury deliberated for about 10 hours over three days before finding in favor of Eddie Bolden on counts of malicious prosecution, violation of constitutional rights, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The 10-member jury awarded Bolden $25 million in compensatory damages, which are paid by the city, as well as $100,000 in punitive damages to be paid by the two surviving Chicago police detectives who were sued, Angelo Pesavento and James Oliver.

The punitive damages were four times the $25,000 that even Bolden’s attorneys requested.

The $25.2 million total verdict appears to be the highest award ever given to a single plaintiff in a wrongful conviction case here, edging out the $25 million handed to Thaddeus Jimenez in 2012. More recently, a jury in 2018 awarded Jacques Rivera more than $17 million in a wrongful conviction case against disgraced detective Reynaldo Guevara.

Bolden, 51, nodded his head slightly as the jury verdict was read by U.S. District Judge Steven Seeger, then took off his eyeglasses and bowed his head to the floor. Standing with his attorneys afterwards in the lobby of the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, Bolden teared up as he said he could barely find words to describe what he felt.

“Finally,” he said. “It’s all I can say right now.”

Bolden’s lead attorney Ron Safer, said the clean-sweep verdict was a “complete vindication” for Bolden, who fought his conviction for decades before his release from prison in 2016.

“I think the jury recognized that he was victimized by a system that unfortunately has victimized people for too long, and they want it to stop,” Safer said.

A spokesperson for the city’s Law Department could not immediately be reached for comment.

The verdict came after a tense, three-week trial in which attorneys representing the city and detectives doubled down on the original investigation, saying Bolden not only got a fair trial but was guilty of the murders all along.

“Mr. Bolden is not an innocent man,” attorney Barrett Boudreaux said in her opening statement. “The police, the prosecutors and the jury that convicted him all got it right.”

Safer said after court Friday that his team would have been open to settlement talks but that the city never even tried to initiate a discussion. “They told us there were offering zero,” he said.

Bolden sued Pesavento and Oliver, as well as the estates of two other detectives who have since died, claiming he was framed in the January 1994 slayings of Derrick Frazier, 24, and Irving Clayton, 23, during a drug deal in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood.

The lawsuit alleged the detectives zeroed in on Bolden as a suspect despite having flimsy evidence and witnesses who claimed Bolden was inside a restaurant playing a Pac-Man video game at the time of the shootings.

Bolden’s 1996 trial hinged mostly on the testimony of Frazier’s brother, Clifford, who was wounded in the shooting and was the only eyewitness, later identifying Bolden as the gunman in a lineup at the Area 2 headquarters.

Bolden was convicted by a Cook County jury of two counts of murder and a count of attempted murder, and sentenced to life in prison.

But in 2014, an Illinois appellate court ruled Bolden had made “a substantial showing” that his trial lawyer had been ineffective by failing to call alibi witnesses to the stand who claimed Bolden was playing a video game inside a JJ Fish & Chicken on Cottage Grove Avenue at the time the shooting took place.

After the case was sent back to the Leighton Criminal Court Building, Cook County Associate Judge Alfredo Maldonado ordered a new trial. Bolden was released in 2016 after the Cook County state’s attorney’s office dropped the case, saying they no longer believed they could meet their burden of proof.

Bolden has since been granted a certificate of innocence allowing him to recoup money from the state for his time in prison.

In his opening statement earlier this month, Safer said that in a rush to solve the case, police ignored key evidence, including that Bolden himself had called 911 from inside the restaurant after a wounded Frazier came barging in with a gun in his hand.

Safer said the shoddy investigation turned up no evidence that Bolden had been involved in the drug deal and no physical or forensic evidence tied him to the murder scene. Undaunted, detectives held an unconstitutional lineup where Bolden was the only one matching the physical features Frazier had given on the suspect, the lawyer said.

Bolden’s criminal defense attorney at the time, Charles Ingles, alleged Frazier was improperly told police had “got the guy” who did the shooting, then walked him in front of Bolden in the station before the lineup. Detectives promised Ingles he could be present with Frazier as he viewed the lineup, but Pesavento had blocked him from entering the room at the last minute, Safer said.

As a result of his wrongful conviction, Bolden was behind bars for the deaths of his grandparents and, later, his parents, Safer said. He contemplated suicide. His son, who was 1 year old at the time Bolden was arrested, graduated college a month after his release, Safer said.

“He missed 22 years of birthday parties, first days of school ... the joys, the sorrows, all the things that make life worth living,” Safer said.

But Boudreaux painted a far different picture of Bolden. She said he was best friends with Anthony “Ant” Williams, a high-ranking Gangster Disciples “governor” whose family owned the JJ Fish restaurant where all of the supposed alibi witnesses worked, as well as the apartments above it where most of them lived. It’s no surprise, she said, that police did not believe their stories about Bolden’s whereabouts.

“They were covering for Eddie Bolden,” she said.

At the time of the murders, Bolden was already on the radar of the FBI, which was conducting an unrelated investigation into Williams and his associates dubbed “Ant-Ban,” Boudreaux said. Police later learned from that FBI probe that Bolden was believed to be the shooter, she said.

Boudreaux also denied that the lineup was rigged, saying Frazier “picked Bolden out immediately.”

“Whose version of events makes more sense?” Boudreaux said.