Appellate court reverses Lake County murder conviction

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Juan Rivera, convicted three times in 11-year-old Holly Staker’s 1992 murder, had his latest conviction reversed by an Illinois Appellate Court panel. December 10, 2012 | IDOC Photo

Juan Rivera learned his conviction for a notorious 1992 murder had been overturned on appeal when cheering inmates woke him early Saturday in his cell at the Stateville Correctional Center.

The Illinois Appellate Court ruling tossed out his third conviction for the rape and fatal stabbing of 11-year-old Holly Staker and also barred Lake County prosecutors from retrying him for the Waukegan girl’s death.

“He has been waiting for almost 20 years to hear these words,” said attorney Larry Marshall, a member of Rivera’s defense team who met with him Saturday at the prison near Joliet.

But Rivera, now 39, already had learned his appeal had succeeded – inmates passed the word to him based on earlier news reports.

“They woke him up with all kinds of cheering,” Marshall said.

The ruling released late Friday means Rivera – who has been jailed for more than 19 years – could be freed from the prison within weeks, his attorneys said Saturday.

“He should be released,” said Jeffrey Urdangen, an attorney with Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, which helps represent Rivera.

Rivera’s 2009 conviction was “unjustified and cannot stand” because of a lack of evidence tying him to Staker’s rape and murder, the 2nd District Appellate Court panel said in its 3-0 ruling.

“We hold that no rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt,” the panel ruled.

The case has drawn national attention in part because DNA evidence found in Staker’s body after her Aug. 17, 1992 slaying couldn’t have come from Rivera, a former Waukegan resident who lived near the apartment where Staker was killed while babysitting two younger children.

“The DNA evidence provides no support to the state’s theory that defendant was the individual who committed the offense beyond a reasonable doubt; rather the DNA evidence embedded reasonable doubt deep into the state’s theory,” the panel said in its written ruling.

The only other evidence linking Rivera to the crime was his purported confession to police, which the court said likely included details given to Rivera “intentionally or unintentionally” by investigators during his lengthy, four-day interrogation.

“The state failed to povide sufficient independent evidence to corroborate defendant’s confession, especially in light of the DNA evidence,” the panel said.

Urdangen criticized prosecutors for even taking the case to trial a third time after advanced DNA testing done in 2004 specifically excluded Rivera as the source of semen found in Staker’s body.

“It was an abuse of discretion by prosecutors to continue with a third trial in light of the DNA evidence,” Urdangen said.

Rivera initially was convicted of the killing in 1993, but that guilty finding later was overturned on appeal.

He was re-tried and convicted again in 1998 – a verdict later upheld by an appellate court.

A Lake County judge agreed in 2006 to allow a third trial after the enhanced DNA testing was completed. Despite that DNA evidence, a Lake County jury in 2009 deliberated for 35 hours over four days before again convicting Rivera of the slaying.

He received a life sentence after each of his convictions.

But the Friday appellate decision prevents prosecutors from seeking to try him a fourth time.

“That’s an amazing ruling, very rare,” said Rob Warden, executive director of the center on wrongful convictions.

Instead, prosecutors essentially have only one option remaining – appealing that ruling to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Waller said he expects to reach a quick decision on whether to appeal to the Supreme Court, but otherwise declined to comment on the ruling or on claims prosecutors acted in bad faith by proceeding with Rivera’s third trial. Prosecutors also could ask the appellate court to reconsider its Friday decision, though observers said that is unlikely.

Rivera’s attorneys, meanwhile, said they’re considering asking the appellate court this week to set bond for Rivera – or even order his release from prison.

They also called on Waller not to pursue an appeal.

“I’m optimistic the state will finally recognize the case is over,” Marshall said.

Holly Staker’s twin sister, Heather, now 30, declined Saturday to comment on the ruling.

Heather urged in 2009 after Rivera’s third conviction that he receive a life sentence.

“Leave him to rot in prison and leave us be,” Heather Staker said then. “Let my twin rest in peace.”

But Warden insisted the appellate ruling confirms what Rivera’s attorneys have long argued: Holly’s killer remains free because police and prosecutors instead focused on Rivera.

“They left the actual killer on the street all these years,” Warden said. “It’s unconscionable.”

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