In taking the rare step of throwing out Juan Rivera's rape and murder conviction and barring prosecutors from taking him to trial again, the Illinois Appellate Court delivered a stinging rebuke to the Lake County criminal justice system, which has come under fire for its handling of a string of high-profile cases.
In a 24-page ruling, the appeals court corrected what it clearly considered to be an injustice in the controversial case of Rivera, a Lake County man who, at three contentious jury trials over the last two decades, was convicted and given a life sentence for the 1992 stabbing of 11-year-old Holly Staker.
The court upbraided police for their investigation into Staker's murder and especially for how they obtained a confession from Rivera, saying veteran detectives used leading questions and likely fed Rivera information. The court also said detectives psychologically manipulated the fragile Rivera.
The appeals court was equally if not more critical of the Lake County state's attorney's office. Using unusually harsh language, the court said the theories that prosecutors offered at trial were "highly improbable" and "distort to an absurd degree" the testimony from witnesses.
Prosecutors can appeal the court's ruling to the Illinois Supreme Court. But the appeals court saddled 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." With that ruling, the court did not even address other issues raised by Rivera's attorneys.
The lawyers said they are considering asking the court this week to free their client, now 39, whose family was overjoyed by Friday's developments.
"This is just one of the very highly problematic cases that have been prosecuted in defiance of common sense and overwhelming physical evidence, especially DNA evidence," Rob Warden, executive director of Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions, which represents Rivera, said after the ruling was issued.
Lake County State's Attorney Michael Waller, who is not running for re-election next year, declined to comment, saying he had not read the ruling. Prosecutor Michael Mermel, who has shepherded the Rivera case through the courts for much of its life, hung up on a reporter who reached him at home.
The ruling is sure to be seen as another embarrassment for Waller's team and one that will color his legacy. Just last week, Waller announced that Mermel would retire in January after he was criticized for comments about the Rivera case and other cases involving DNA that were seen as callous and intemperate.
Although the court wrote that contrary to the claims of Rivera's lawyers, "DNA does not trump all other evidence," in the end it determined the DNA "embedded reasonable doubt deep into the state's theory" of the case.
Rivera was in custody on a burglary charge when he became a suspect in the murder of Staker, who was raped and stabbed in a Waukegan home where she was baby-sitting. He was first found guilty in November 1993, but an appeals court reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial. Rivera was convicted again in 1998. In 2004, a Lake County judge granted Rivera DNA testing; he was tried again in 2009 and, again, was convicted.
He was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.
Last year, Waller's office was forced to drop its rape and murder case against Jerry Hobbs, who had been charged with the 2005 stabbing deaths of his 8-year-old daughter and her 9-year-old friend.
As in Rivera's case, DNA evidence from semen found in the girl's body was not from the suspect, and he confessed after a grueling interrogation. Still, prosecutors pressed on with their case, arguing it was possible the DNA came from semen left by a couple at a lover's lane.
Prosecutors released Hobbs only after the DNA was matched to another man whose genetic profile was in a database of offenders.
In the Rivera case, a match to another suspect has never been made. The court said there was insufficient evidence to support Mermel's claim at trial that Staker had been sexually active.
Jed Stone, a veteran criminal defense attorney in Lake County, said he hoped the ruling would encourage prosecutors to realize "they are not about convictions, they are about doing justice."
"And that," he added, "means looking at all of the evidence and remembering that people who are accused of crimes are not others, they are us."
Rivera's family gathered at his parents' small Waukegan apartment to celebrate.
"When (Rivera's parents) got the news, they could not speak, they were in such shock," said Miguel Diaz, Rivera's older brother. "They are doing really good now. They are so happy."
Diaz said they are hopeful that Rivera will be released before the holidays.
"It will be a great Christmas," Diaz said. "What else can you ask for?"
Tribune reporter Dan Hinkel and freelance reporter Ruth Fuller contributed.