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 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.