Nearly everything Juan Rivera owns is new.
On Thursday, less than a week after his two decades in prison ended, he walked the floor of his newly rented two-bedroom apartment. He wore freshly bought running shoes, jogging pants and a polo shirt as he took frequent calls and text messages on his new smartphone. Allowed full control of his diet for the first time since he was 19, he opened the refrigerator door to show fruit, vegetables and bottled water.
But Rivera, 39, didn't leave everything about prison behind after he was cleared of the 1992 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in Waukegan. The good and the bad followed him out, he said.
Rivera, fastidiously groomed and a fit 6 feet 3 inches, maintains the strict veganism he adopted behind bars, and he speaks of his devotion to the religious faith he found at Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet.
His first few nights of freedom, however, were mostly sleepless. He grew used to sleeping on his cell's metal bed frame, which he found more comfortable without the lumpy mattress. In his king-size hotel bed in the nights after his release, he woke to each move of his wife, whom he met while he was in prison. He was once stabbed in the prison yard, he said, and is incapable of anything but vigilance.
Taken to a Target store for the first time, he declared it "the biggest commissary I've ever seen."
"I became a man in the worst place possible," Rivera told the Tribune in his first lengthy interview since his release. "In hell."
Asked whether he's angry at the Lake County prosecutors and police who jailed him and resisted his release — even after DNA evidence indicated the girl was raped by another man — he voiced only sadness about the justice system.
"Am I mad? No. I'm disappointed that mankind would do this," he said.
As he starts his life outside prison, Rivera has big plans, including educating people about false confessions and wrongful convictions. As for his personal goals, he has his GED, and he wants to continue the education he began during what had been a life sentence.
"I always knew I was a lifer, but I never lived as a lifer. The only thing that was incarcerated was my body. My spirit and my mind was free," he said. "Now that I'm free, it's going to be better than ever."
Rivera's odyssey through the justice system reaches back to Aug. 17, 1992, when residents of a neighborhood on Waukegan's near north side began to learn of the rape and murder of Holly Staker, a photogenic blond girl killed as she baby-sat two young children.
Two months later, prosecutors announced charges against Juan A. Rivera Jr., a high school dropout who had moved to Waukegan in the early 1990s after spending his childhood in New York City's South Bronx and in Puerto Rico, where he was born. Rivera had few guidelines at home, and he hung around with gang members, smoked marijuana and stole for thrills, he said.
Rivera had been jailed on a burglary charge weeks after the murder, and he drew police attention by telling an inmate he knew something about the murder, prosecutors said. Under questioning by police, he gave an alibi rife with discrepancies, authorities said. Although he was on electronic home monitoring at the time of the killing, authorities said he slipped from the device before the murder.
Rivera said Thursday that he had told the other inmates he saw someone near the crime scene on the night of the killing. Rivera had actually been told of the sighting by a friend, he said, but he wanted to protect the friend's identity in his conversation with the other inmates.
Rivera would later admit to the murder. Prosecutors said he voluntarily confessed, offering details only the killer could have known.
Rivera's many defense attorneys have argued he confessed falsely after being fed details by detectives during an exhausting interrogation that spanned days.
"I could tell you about (the confession) because I have read about it," he said. "I don't remember experiencing it."
Rivera was first found guilty in November 1993, but an appeals court ordered a new trial, citing technical errors by Judge Christopher Starck. Rivera was convicted again in 1998. In 2004, a judge granted testing that would reveal crucial evidence: semen found in Staker's body came from a man other than Rivera.
Although prosecutors argued that the 11-year-old girl must have had sex with someone else before she was stabbed to death, Starck granted Rivera a third jury trial. That trial ended with another guilty verdict in 2009.
In prison, Rivera found both peril and peace, he said.
In 1993, he was surrounded by inmates in the yard and shanked twice in the left side, he said. Scared to go to the prison hospital because he might be asked to identify his attacker, he settled for a few bandages from jail personnel. He saw men raped, stabbed and badly beaten, he said.
"I had to conform myself to being an aggressive, angry monster," he said.
But those who met him later in his prison term found a man who seemed calm and intellectually engaged. He found faith and began to consider himself a Hebrew Israelite, adopting a religion whose followers often believe themselves to be related to the ancient Israelites. He learned to read and write Hebrew and to read Arabic, he said.
He jogged in place in his cell each day, he said, and he adopted strict veganism. He worked in the prison kitchen, specializing in vegan meals, he said.
Rivera met his future wife after he was convicted for the second time in 1998. The woman now known as Melissa Sanders-Rivera hoped at the time to work in a legal field, and she contacted his defense team to ask if she could volunteer. Taken by his personality, she married him in 2000, she said.
The image of a faithful and intellectual seeker clashes with the ruthlessness and brutality attributed to him by prosecutors. His own lawyers pointed out that his IQ was once measured at 79, which they hoped would indicate he could not have used certain words in his written confession.
"Everything that was presented at trial, it was relevant to his interrogation when he was 19," said Jeffrey Urdangen, an attorney from Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions who met Rivera in 2006. "This was a transformed man in a way that I've not seen before in my professional life representing criminal defendants."
Rivera's days in prison ended Jan. 6, weeks after appeals judges slapped down his conviction. The judges held that "no rational trier of fact" could have judged Rivera guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and called prosecutors' theories about DNA "highly improbable."
Hours after Lake County State's Attorney Michael Waller declined to challenge the ruling, Rivera was released into a cheering throng of supporters, defense lawyers and family members.
Rivera's case is one of four in which Waller has continued to pursue a defendant after forensic evidence appeared to point away from that person. Key elements of all of the cases remain unresolved in the months before Waller's retirement at the end of this year.
In Holly Staker's killing, detectives now inherit a case that officers considered solved since 1992. Waukegan officers are investigating again, police said.
Not everyone is convinced of Rivera's innocence. Reached at his Montana home, former Waukegan detective Lou Tessmann, who helped interrogate Rivera, objected to the tone of media coverage by outlets including the Tribune and wrapped up his comments by saying: "Rivera did it."
The victim's twin, Heather Staker, said this week that Rivera's release leaves her afraid. Her sister's stabbing death and the three relentlessly publicized trials took their toll, she said. Friday, she observes the 31st birthday she would have shared with her sister, and she has spent the last two decades beset by anxiety, personal troubles and health woes, she said.
"I accidentally saw a picture of her slaughtered body," said Staker, of Waukegan. "It's something I can never get out of my head."
Fear follows Rivera, too, he said. His family lives in Waukegan, but, for his new home, he chose a suburb outside Lake County that the Tribune is not identifying at Rivera's request. He's scared to set foot in the county any time soon, he said, because he worries he or his family could be targeted by those who believe he killed Staker.
Rivera said he doesn't blame the Staker family for their thoughts on the case.
"It's hurtful that they still are suffering based upon the ignorance of these detectives," he said. "I keep them in my prayers. I want to do what I can to find the person who did this so they can find closure."
Nearly a week into his life as a free man, Rivera walked the streets around his new apartment, an enthusiastic smile on his face. He fixated on a man jogging, performing the free person's version of the stationary exercise Rivera practiced in his cell for years.
Watching the man run on the sidewalk, Rivera said, "That's what I should be doing."
Ruth Fuller is a freelance reporter; Dan Hinkel is a staff reporter.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun