Nearly 20 years after he was imprisoned, Juan Rivera walked out of Stateville Correctional Center and into a throng of jubilant family members Friday evening after he was exonerated in the murder of a Waukegan baby sitter.
His release came less than six hours after the Lake County's state's attorney announced he will not challenge an appellate court ruling that reversed Rivera's third conviction — after three separate trials — for the stabbing and sexual assault of 11-year-old Holly Staker in 1992.
"I can't explain it. It's life all over again," said Rivera, beaming and describing the moment as surreal.
"I just want to experience life. Watch a football game. Just walk on the sidewalk and know that I'm free."
Relatives found it significant that prosecutor Michael Waller chose Friday to announce his decision to drop efforts to prosecute Rivera. In their native Puerto Rico, Jan. 6 is Three Kings Day, which marks the 12th day of Christmas and the day children open their gifts.
"Que regalo de los Tres Reyes, Mama!" Rivera's older brother, Miguel Diaz, said earlier Friday in a celebratory phone call with his mother. "What a gift of the Three Kings, Mama!"
Waller announced his decision in a two-page news release that alternately praised the juries that convicted Rivera three times but also conceded the appellate court's conclusion that evidence in the case was insufficient. Prosecutors had maintained Rivera's guilt even after DNA from semen found in the girl excluded Rivera as the source.
"I am mindful that for Mr. Rivera and some others, this decision will be viewed as too late in coming," Waller wrote. "I am also mindful that for others … including the family of Holly Staker, this decision will be perceived as premature. All I can say is that I believe this is the right decision at this time."
Rivera, 39, was released from the prison near Joliet shortly after the Illinois 2nd District Appellate Court approved an emergency motion to free him.
Freshly shaven, he wore a white sweatshirt, black sweatpants and immaculate white high-tops.
Rivera said he staved off bitterness during his years behind bars by getting a GED and a barber's license and taking paralegal and religion classes.
He was working in the prison kitchen when he got word he would be released, and his fellow inmates hugged him and cried after he announced the news, Rivera said.
He had no plans for his first day as a free man. Someone handed him a slice of pizza, which he carried awkwardly as he walked to a car.
"I won't eat it. It has cheese in it," said Rivera, who became a vegan in prison. But he planned to suspend his diet for a single meal — a corned beef and rice dish, his mother's specialty — "to honor her."
His diminutive mother, Carmen Rivera, smiled and clutched her son's hand.
One of his attorneys, Jeffrey Urdangen, of Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions, described Rivera's case as "an appalling miscarriage of justice."
"You get outrage fatigue in this line (of work)," Urdangen said. "He's such a marvelous, beautiful man."
As news of Rivera's release broke Friday, Waukegan police Chief Dan Greathouse said he has reopened the investigation into who raped and killed Holly Staker while she was baby-sitting. He was trying to reach her family to inform them, he said.
The move seemed unlikely to provide solace to Holly's twin sister, Heather Staker, who remained convinced of Rivera's guilt. She said Friday that she was the one who was supposed to have been baby-sitting that day in 1992 and that she's "scared for my life" with Rivera now free.
"You guys are letting a murderer out on the street," she said.
Staker pointed out that Rivera "went through the whole … scenario of what he did that night." And, in fact, his confession was central to his conviction, as there was scant physical evidence tying him to the scene.
But Rivera's lawyers maintained the confession was coerced, and on Dec. 9, the Illinois 2nd District Appellate Court released a 24-page ruling that reversed the conviction, stating that the theories 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 psychological manipulation to obtain Rivera's confession over four days. Detectives also might have fed Rivera information about the crime, the ruling suggested.
Prosecutors could have appealed the court's ruling to the Illinois Supreme Court. But the appeals court gave them 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."
Waller defended his office's handling of the case, saying 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."
He also noted, as the appellate court did, that DNA "'does not trump all other evidence' in all instances."
Rivera's lead attorney, Stanford University law professor Lawrence Marshall, said in a statement that while his team "obviously (has) issues with Mr. Waller's office for pursuing the case for years" after DNA excluded Rivera, he expressed gratitude that Waller decided not to continue the fight.
The Rivera case joins a number of other high-profile Illinois prosecutions upended by DNA. That includes 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 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 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. He insisted he was innocent and was on a home-monitoring system when the crime occurred.
Rivera was first found guilty in 1993, but the appellate court reversed that and granted him a new trial that ended with another conviction in 1998. In 2004, a Lake County judge granted Rivera DNA testing and a new trial, leading to a third conviction in 2009 and a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Andy Grimm and Lisa Black are Tribune reporters; Ruth Fuller is a freelance reporter.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun