Juan Rivera – jailed for more than 19 years in the 1992 stabbing and rape of an 11-year-old Lake County girl named Holly Staker – walked out of prison a free man Friday afternoon after Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Waller said earlier in the day he won’t appeal an Illinois Appellate Court’s decision last month reversing his conviction.
Rivera was convicted three times by jury, but the Illinois Appellate Court ruled in early December to reverse the convictions, citing DNA evidence.
“Twenty years of prison walls,” Rivera said after walking out of Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet. “This is surreal.”
Waller said Friday he wouldn’t challenge the ruling, clearing the way for Rivera to go free.
“We are delighted…this could have been dragged on a lot longer,” said Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law School, which was involved in Rivera’s appeal.
Waller’s decision not to seek to re-try the case came in the wake of a 3-0 ruling by a panel of the Illinois Appellate Court in December that Rivera’s 2009 conviction was “unjustified and cannot stand” because of a lack of evidence tying him to Holly’s rape and murder.
Rivera’s parents and siblings and a host of nieces and nephews, many of whom live in Waukegan, made the 90-minute drive to Stateville for the reunion, mobbing him with hugs upon his exit and plastering him with kisses.
Rivera, his hair flecked with gray, told reporters he’s looking forward to the simple joys of life – spending time with his family, watching the sun rise, breathing fresh air.
He said he feels no bitterness toward prosecutors, adding, “I thank God that the court system saw the truth.”
He said he’s thinking about returning to school, perhaps to study law or computers.
“I just thank God that the ordeal is over,” he said, expressing hopes authorities change standards for interrogations and require that they be videotaped.
However, the man who waited nearly 20 years to reunite with his wife had to wait a little bit longer, because the car his wife and stepchildren were driving broke down on the way to Statesville. They were soon reunited, however, and later in the day, the entire family enjoyed a vegan pizza party at the offices of the Center for Wrongful Convictions.
Rivera’s case attracted national attention in part because DNA evidence found in the girl’s body after her Aug. 17, 1992, killing did not match that of the former Waukegan resident.
Rivera lived near the apartment where Holly was killed while babysitting two younger children.
He initially was convicted of the killing in 1993, but that guilty finding was overturned on appeal.
He was re-tried in 1998 and convicted again. But a Lake County judge agreed in 2006 to allow a third trial after advances in DNA testing confirmed evidence found in Holly’s body didn’t match him.
Despite that contradictory DNA evidence, a Lake County jury again convicted Rivera in 2009 after four days of deliberations.
He was sentenced to life in prison after each conviction.
“I have spent the last few weeks carefully reviewing and assessing the appellate court’s opinion, as well as considering the strengths and weaknesses of all the evidence in the Juan Rivera case,” Waller said Friday. “As a result of that examination, I have decided that I will not ask the Illinois Supreme Court to review the appellate court’s decison reversing Mr. Rivera’s guilty verdict. Therefore, the prosecution of Mr. Rivera comes to a conclusion today.”
Rivera’s appeal was led by Northwestern University law professor Lawrence Marshall, with co-counsel from the firm of Jenner & Block and Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, which Marshall co-founded in 1999 when he was on the faculty of Northwestern School of Law.
“We are pleased that Mr. Waller has accepted the appellate court’s decision reversing Mr. Rivera’s conviction,” Marshall said.
“Obviously, we have issues with Mr. Waller’s office for pursuing the case over the years after DNA excluded Mr. Rivera as the source of semen recovered from the victim. But Mr. Waller could have further extended the process with an appeal, thus delaying Mr. Rivera’s release from prison. We are grateful that Mr. Waller chose not to do that.”
Warden added that he hopes Lake County authorities will re-open the investigation into the attack on Holly Staker and offered to share information his investigative team uncovered.
“Amazingly, there were a great many sex offenders who lived within a half-mile radius of the crime scene – many of whom were never investigated,” Warden said. “We hope the case will cause a serious re-evaluation of police interrogation practices that have caused a rash of false confessions, including Mr. Rivera’s.”