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.
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.