Ending nearly 20 years in custody, Juan Rivera walked out of prison today hours after authorities said they will not challenge an appellate court’s reversal of his murder conviction in the 1992 slaying of 11-year-old babysitter Holly Staker.
“I have decided that I will not ask the Illinois Supreme Court to review the appellate court’s decision reversing Mr. Rivera’s guilty verdict,” Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Waller wrote in a 2-page news release. “Therefore, the prosecution of Mr. Rivera comes to a conclusion today.”
Three appellate court judges approved an emergency order for in the case, paving the way for his release from prison, which came in front of news cameras about 4:30 p.m.
Rivera was beaming as he stepped through the door of the Stateville guardhouse to a waiting throng of a dozen family members, many of them teenage nieces and nephews who had never seen him outside prison walls.
"It's absolutely surreal," said Rivera, who was at work in the prison kitchen this afternoon when he got word he would be released. "I had doubts as to when it would happen, but I never doubted that it would happen."
Rivera was mobbed by his tearful family. Everyone hugged and cried. The group of family members yelled things like, “We love you, Juan” and “You’re home, buddy.”
He yelled back, “I’m home!”
When asked how he felt, Rivera said: “I can’t explain it. It’s life all over again. I have a beautiful family that has believed in me all along.”
He said his fellow inmates were “all elated. They started crying and wished me well” when they heard he was going to get out.
“All I want to do is spend time with my family,” Rivera said. “There’s no bitterness or anger towards anyone.”
He said he became a vegan in prison but he said he’d give his mother, Carmen Rivera, a gift of eating her specialty, a corned beef and rice dish, one time.
Soon after Waller's 11 a.m. announcement, Jeffrey Urdangen of Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions had filed a motion at Illinois 2nd District Appellate Court in Elgin seeking Rivera’s immediate release from prison.
Prosecutors maintained that Rivera was guilty even after he was excluded through DNA testing as the source of semen found in the Waukegan girl’s body, who had been stabbed and sexually assaulted.
On Dec. 9, the Illinois Appellate Court released a harshly worded, 24-page ruling that reversed the conviction, stating that the theories that prosecutors offered at trial were “highly improbable” and “distort to an absurd degree” the testimony from witnesses.
The ruling accused veteran detectives of using leading questions and using psychology to manipulate the fragile Rivera, as well as possibly feeding Rivera information.
Prosecutors could have appealed the court's ruling to the Illinois Supreme Court. But the appeals court gave them with a heavy burden, writing that even when the evidence was viewed in a light most favorable to prosecutors, “no rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The court said the evidence was “insufficient” to establish Rivera's guilt and the conviction was “unjustified and cannot stand.”
Waller, who declined to answer any questions beyond the news release, defended his office’s handling of the case, saying that all evidence was made known to Rivera and his legal team.
“Mr. Rivera had confessed to the murder of Holly Staker and, it was our understanding, possessed information about the crime and the crime scene that, we felt, warranted his prosecution,” he wrote. “In light of this evidence, we advanced evidence and theories that could account for the DNA of another being found on the body of Holly Staker.”
But he also acknowledged that the appellate court “aptly noted” that DNA “ ‘does not trump all other evidence’ in all instances.”
Rivera’s lead attorney, Stanford law professor Lawrence Marshall, responded to Waller’s decision with a written statement: “We are pleased that Mr. Waller has accepted the appellate court’s decision reversing Mr. Rivera’s conviction. 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.”
The Rivera case joins a number of other high-profile Illinois cases upended by DNA, including the Lake County case of Jerry Hobbs, who spent five years in jail awaiting trial for the murders of his 8-year-old daughter and her 9-year-old friend before the state’s attorney’s office dropped murder charges against him.
Prosecutors had argued that semen discovered in Laura Hobbs' remains could have found its way inside her as she played in a wooded spot where couples were said to go for sex. But in early 2010, the DNA was matched to a former Marine from Zion, Jorge Torrez, who has now been convicted and sentenced to life in prison for an unrelated rape. He also faces a charge that he murdered a Navy petty officer in her Virginia barracks in 2009.
No one has been charged in the Zion killings since Hobbs' release and the investigation continues, Waller said.
Rivera was in custody on a burglary charge when he became a suspect in the murder of Staker, who was raped and stabbed to death in a Waukegan home where she was baby-sitting. The Lake County man insisted he was innocent and was on a home-monitoring system when the crime occurred. Rivera's lawyers argued that was evidence of his innocence; prosecutors presented evidence the system often failed to detect when subjects left their home.
Rivera was first found guilty in November 1993, but the appellate court reversed the conviction and granted him a new trial. Rivera was convicted again in 1998. In 2004, a Lake County judge granted Rivera DNA testing and a new trial; he was tried again in 2009 and convicted again.
He was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.
Holly Staker’s sister, Heather, remains convinced of Rivera’s guilt. Reached by phone, she said she will be “scared for her life” when Rivera is released.
“It was my night to babysit, maybe I was the target,” she said.
Asked if she was still convinced that Rivera killed her sister she said “I know he did. He went through the whole (expletive) scenario of what he did that night. You guys are letting a murderer out on the street.”
The Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions represented Rivera. The law firm of Jenner & Block donated more than 12,000 hours of legal work to Rivera's trial and appeal, officials said.
Tribune reporter Andy Grimm contributed.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun