Updated: March 7, 2012 1:45AM
Juan Rivera — jailed for more than 19 years for the 1992 stabbing and rape of an 11-year-old Holly Staker — walked out of prison a free man Friday afternoon after Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Waller said earlier in the day he won’t appeal an Illinois Appellate Court’s decision last month that reversed Rivera’s conviction.
Rivera was convicted three times by jury, but the Illinois Appellate Court ruled in early December to reverse the convictions, citing DNA evidence.
“Twenty years of prison walls,” Rivera told reporters outside Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet. “This is surreal.”
Waller said Friday he won’t challenge the ruling, clearing the way for Rivera to go free.
“We are delighted ... this could have been dragged on a lot longer,” said Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law School, which was involved in Rivera’s appeal.
Rivera’s wife, parents and siblings, many of whom live in Waukegan, planned to make the 90-minute drive to Stateville for a reunion, Warden said.
Waller’s decision not to seek to re-try the case came in the wake of a 3-0 ruling by a panel of the Illinois Appellate Court in December that Rivera’s 2009 conviction was “unjustified and cannot stand” because of a lack of evidence tying him to Holly’s rape and murder.
The case attracted national attention in part because DNA evidence found in the girl’s body after her Aug. 17, 1992, killing didn’t match that of Rivera, a former Waukegan resident who lived near the apartment where Holly was killed while babysitting two younger children.
Rivera initially was convicted of the killing in 1993, but that guilty finding later was overturned on appeal.
Rivera was re-tried in 1998 and convicted again. But a Lake County judge agreed in 2006 to allow a third trial after advances in DNA testing confirmed that evidence found in Holly’s body didn’t match Rivera.
Despite that contradictory DNA evidence, a Lake County jury again convicted Rivera in 2009 after four days of deliberations.
He was sentenced to life in prison after each conviction.
“I have spent the last few weeks carefully reviewing and assessing the appellate court’s opinion, as well as considering the stregths and weaknesses of all the evidence in the Juan Rivera case,” Waller said Friday. “As a result of that examination, I have decided that I will not ask the Illinois Supreme Court to review the appellate court’s decison reversing Mr. Rivera’s guilty verdict. Therefore, the prosecution of Mr. Rivera comes to a conclusion today.”
Rivera’s appeal was led by Northwestern University law professor Lawrence Marshall, with co-counsel from the firm of Jenner & Block and Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, which Marshall co-founded in 1999 when he was on the faculty of Northwestern School of Law.
“We are pleased that Mr. Waller has accepted the appellate court’s decision reversing Mr. Rivera’s conviction,” Marshall said. “Obviously, we have issues with Mr. Waller’s office for pursuing the case over the years after DNA excluded Mr. Rivera as the source of semen recovered from the victim. But Mr. Waller could have further extended the process with an appeal, thus delaying Mr. Rivera’s release from prison. We are grateful that Mr. Waller chose not to do that.”
The timing of Rivera’s release from Statesville prison depends on several factors.
“We’ve got to get copies of a court order certifying his release,” Warden said around noon Friday. “We’re attempting to obtain that court order right now. It’s perfunctory, but it may take a while. Then, we’ve got to get it to Statesville, and they have to verify its authenticity and then start the process of letting him out.”
Warden said he hopes Lake County authorities will re-open the investigation into the attack on Holly Staker and offered to share information his investigative team uncovered.
“Amazingly, there were a great many sex offenders who lived within a half-mile radius of the crime scene — many of whom were never investigated,” Warden said. “We hope the case will cause a serious re-evaluation of police interrogation practices that have caused a rash of false confessions, including Mr. Rivera’s.”
Contributing: James Scalzitti