As Juan Rivera enjoyed newfound freedom this weekend after being cleared in the murder of 11-year-old Holly Staker, Waukegan police reopened the 20-year-old case that became the latest to unravel with the emergence of DNA evidence.
Rivera, 39, exchanged tearful hugs with relatives and lawyers at a pizza party Friday night, shortly after he was released from Stateville Correctional Center, near Joliet.
The dramatic reversal was prompted by Lake County State's Attorney Michael Waller's announcement hours earlier that he would not challenge a ruling that resoundingly overturned Rivera's conviction. The appellate court called the state's theories "highly improbable" and lacking evidence.
"We want Lake County to step up," said Melissa Sanders-Rivera, who married Rivera in prison 12 years ago. The couple would like to see authorities pursue Holly's killer, she said. "We want justice for (Holly's) family as well."
Waukegan police Chief Daniel Greathouse said Friday he's reopened the probe into Holly's murder but isn't sure if the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force would play a role this time. Waller also gave no indication if his office will re-examine the case and seek a new suspect.
In 1992, the rape and murder of the Waukegan baby sitter became one of the first high-profile cases handled by the task force, made up of officers from throughout the county. But some members have come under scrutiny in recent years for their tactics in obtaining confessions.
DNA from semen found inside the girl's body did not match Rivera. The detectives who interrogated him over four days asked leading questions and used psychological techniques to manipulate Rivera into a confession, the ruling states.
"We are left with the impression that the details of defendant's confession were procured 'piecemeal' and not as a result of a candid acknowledgment of guilt," the appellate court said.
Greathouse said he "can't control what" the task force does. "Usually, it's a situation where the task force would handle the case. This is a unique situation."
The task force's commander, Round Lake Park police Chief George Filenko, declined to comment. Mundelein police Chief Raymond Rose, the task force chairman, could not be reached.
Meanwhile, having spent half his life in prison, Rivera said he will need time to discover what he's missed. As they drove to his post-release party, his brother pointed out places, including Soldier Field and Navy Pier, that Rivera had seen only in pictures.
"It's like I am on vacation now," he said.
Rivera talked about learning to use the smartphone his wife bought him and surfing the Internet for the first time. He and his wife have plans to sit and talk about their future, he said.
"Life begins for me today," he said. "Prison was the canal, and this is a new birth for me — just breathing air and knowing that I am home."
Lisa Black is a Tribune reporter; Ruth Fuller is a freelance reporter.