Wrongful conviction leads to record $20 million settlement
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Juan Rivera Jr. — wrongly convicted for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl — has been awarded $1 million for every year he spent in prison.
Law enforcement in Lake County, Waukegan and several other towns have agreed to pay $20 million to settle a lawsuit by Rivera, who spent 20 years locked up for the 1992 rape and murder of Holly Staker before DNA evidence pointed to another suspect.
“There’s no amount of money they could give me to justify 20 years [in prison], but they decided to give me 20 million and I’m happy with that,” said Rivera, who walked out of jail in 2012 when a state appeals court reversed his conviction.
Rivera spent most of his time at Statesville prison, missing his grandmother’s funeral, his mother’s kidney transplant and daily family life.
The 20-year ordeal was painful for Rivera’s family, said his father, Juan Rivera Sr., in Spanish, choking up as he recalled visiting his son in prison.
The settlement means Rivera will get to help pay his family’s medical bills, go to school and even pay for some of his relatives’ education.
He plans to keep his job as a supervisor at a Northwestern University medical research facility, at least until he goes to school to study business administration and accounting.
“Right now I’m working, and I want to keep working, so the future is left to the future,” he said in Spanish. “I [am] just trying to live my life with my family the best that we can.”
This is the largest wrongful-conviction settlement involving a single person in the United States, said Rivera’s lawyer, Jon Loevy.
Other wrongful-conviction lawsuits — such as Juan Johnson’s in 2009 — have resulted in bigger awards after going to trial. In Rivera’s case, the settlement was reached before going to court; a trial had been scheduled to start in June, Loevy said.
“They conceded that Juan was entitled to the money without the [trial],” Loevy said. “They didn’t want to go [to court] and try to defend themselves; they just agreed voluntarily to pay the $20 million.”
Rivera said he had wanted to go to trial for the money to show the corruption that landed him in jail in the first place.
“I still would prefer my 20 years back [over] the $20 million,” he said.
Rivera, now 42, is looking forward to move on with his life and said his case doesn’t define him as a person.
“Of course I’m resentful. I’m not going to say that I’m angry, I’m not angry, but I’m hurt, resentful, disappointed, upset [for what] I had to endure,” he said, flanked by his family and girlfriend, after the settlement was announced.
Rivera was 19 when he was arrested and charged with raping and murdering Staker in Waukegan; he gave police a signed confession to the murder.
“[The case] highlights the problem with wrongful confessions,” Loevy said. “Juan was interrogated for four straight days, at one point for 24 hours at a time — they got a confession from him that wasn’t true.”
An investigation into law enforcement officers involved in Rivera’s case has not taken place, but Rivera said he hopes it happens soon.
Rivera sued Lake County, the Waukegan police and other law enforcement agencies; his lawsuit focused on a pair of gym shoes police suggested Rivera wore during the murder.
The Voit high-tops were stained with the victim’s blood and tests later showed another man’s blood was on the shoes. The DNA in the blood matched that of the semen found in the girl’s body.
The shoes were never introduced as evidence in Rivera’s trial, something his lawyers say is proof that Rivera was framed.
“This wrongful conviction is a stellar example of miscarriage of justice,” said Locke Bowman, who also represented Rivera through Northwestern University’s MacArthur Justice Center. “This was a deliberate, designed coercion of a false confession . . . this was a deliberate frame-up.”
The DNA found in the shoes also matched DNA connected to another murder case for which someone already is serving time. The girl’s real killer has not been identified and remains at large, Bowman said.