Nathson Fields: Witness to Innocence

On Jun. 13,1985, Nathson Fields got into his car and drove around the block. He was on his way to the local coffee shop. 

“I was about a minute away from my destination when a patrol car turned its lights on and pulled me over,” Fields said.

The officer on duty asked Fields for his license and registration. Then the officer asked Fields to step out of the vehicle. 

“He told me to stand there, while he went to his car to check things out,” Fields said.

This is when two undercover patrol cars pulled up. Officers ran towards Fields, weapons drawn.

“I put my hands in the air and let them know that I wasn’t gonna move,” Fields said.

Still, officers were aggressive. Without telling Fields why he was being arrested, officers handcuffed Fields and took him away.

“When we got to the jail, one of the arresting officers said, ‘See you in 40 years Nate.’ I didn’t know what this meant at the time,” Fields said.

It would be 23 years before Fields would be free again. 

Now a speaker for the Witness to Innocence project, an organization dedicated to empowering exonerated death row survivors, Fields came to the University of Minnesota Duluth on Apr.l 11 to share his story. Students, staff and members of the community attended the event.

“The next day, still unaware of why I had been arrested, I was taken to arraignment,” Fields said. “When the judge said, ‘You’ve been charged with two counts of murder,’ I almost fainted.”

Not only was Fields found guilty—he was given the death penalty.

“I was in shock,” Fields said. “It didn’t hit me right away.”

It wasn’t until Fields arrived at death row and saw the 8-by-9-foot cells where prisoners spent 23 hours a day that it finally hit him.

 "These people are about to kill me," Fields said.

On his first night in prison, Fields began hearing things.

“I heard inmates screaming names. Some screamed their family’s names, some screamed their girlfriend’s names and some screamed their kid’s names. Others—others just cried,” Fields said.

As rare as Fields’ story seems, wrongful conviction is not uncommon. 

“The reality is that there have been 157 people in the modern death penalty era since 1973 that have been exonerated completely,” Scott Vollum, Associate Professor of UMD's Anthropology, Sociology & Criminology Department, said.
Vollum, who has known Fields for seven years and helped plan the event, teaches a class called “Death Penalty.” In this class, students have the opportunity to write to an individual impacted by the death penalty, whether it be a victim’s family, a prosecutor or even an individual on death row.

“Ultimately, I think that it is a good experience from what I hear and from what I read,” Vollum said.

Vollum’s goal is to get students to look at the death penalty from a human perspective. 

“A number of former students continue to write to people on death row. Some students have even gone and visited people on death row,” Vollum said.

Vollum hopes that students will see that these people are human beings with hopes and dreams.

“I think it is uncomfortable sometimes. I think it’s easier to think that criminals are aberrant, bad people that are inherently different than the rest of us, but students come to find that, even the worst of the worst, sometimes, are not that different,” Vollum said.

On his worst days on death row, Fields held onto a mantra that his mother had instilled in him at a young age: “Nothing lasts forever.” 

Additionally, Fields began helping other inmates by being a positive presence. 

“As hard as it is to think about, I thought that maybe this was the reason the Lord had put me in here. To help others,” Fields said.

Fields witnessed eleven executions during his time on death row. He also witnessed the deaths of approximately a dozen other inmates due to lack of medical care. 

During his presentation, Fields shared some of his final memories with some of his dearest friends. 

On one occasion, Fields arranged a prayer circle for an inmate being executed the following day. On another occasion, Fields and fellow inmates danced in the rain during an inmate’s last hour outside of the 23 that they were in lockdown.

Fields’ efforts to establish friendships paid off. In 1991, one friend and fellow inmate showed him a newspaper article about Tom Mahoney—the judge in his case, who was being charged for taking bribes in numerous cases. Another friend and former inmate bailed Fields out in 2003 after Mahoney was convicted. 

Most recently, on Dec. 15, 2016, Fields was granted $22 million in compensations. Though this is believed to be one of the largest compensations in a wrongful conviction case in Chicago history, Fields doesn't believe that one can put a price on a life.

“I would give all of the money back if I could have my time on this earth back,” Fields said.

The injustice that Fields faced cost him watching his daughter grow up, attending his mom’s funeral and much more.

“Some of my dreams have been fulfilled. At this time, I am the Chair of the Board to Witness to Innocence, an organization dedicated to empowering exonerated death row survivors,” Fields said.

In time, Field hopes that the death penalty will be abolished altogether.

“All of us are human. All of us make mistakes. Unfortunately, some people have been mistakenly convicted and mistakenly executed,” Fields said. “You can’t bring a person back from the grave.”

The audience erupted in applause as Nate left the podium. Many made it a priority to shake Nate’s hand and thank him for sharing his story.

“I am extremely overjoyed with the amount of people that came to hear Nate and the attention that was brought to such a controversial thing being the death penalty,” Georgia Gates, President of the Criminology Club, said.

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