Court tosses conviction in Waukegan girl's murder

December 10, 2011 9:05:24 PM PST
Juan Rivera was convicted three times in the stabbing death of 11-year-old Holly Staker of Waukegan. Now, after nearly two decades, his rape and murder convictions have been thrown out.

Rivera is now 39. Half his life has been spent in prison. After his first conviction in Staker's murder, a second trial was ordered, then a third. There was never any forensic evidence. DNA pointed to someone else. Still, each time he was found guilty.

But that now changes. Three Appellate Court judges have found the case against him so flawed, they have thrown out his conviction.

Rivera got the news Saturday morning, and everybody on his cell block at Stateville cheered. He will soon be leaving the prison.

"When I spoke to him earlier, his words were, it's surreal," said Melissa Sanders, Rivera's wife.

"I'm gonna see him Monday. That's the first thing I'm gonna do. A big hug and a big kiss," siad Miguel Diaz, brother.

Rivera's family is cheering too because of a unanimous Appellate Court decision saying that Rivera's conviction was "unjustified and cannot stand."

Two years ago Rivera was convicted a third time for the 1992 rape and murder of Staker even though prints and blood at the scene and, most significantly, DNA belonged to someone other than Rivera.

What prosecutors did have was a confession from the then 19-year-old, a confession Rivera later insisted had been coerced.

"Their evidence just didn't come across, and evidently the credibility of these fine officers did," said Mike Mermel, Lake County Assistant State's Attorney, in 2009.

But the Appellate Court says those "officers used leading questions" in extracting Rivera's confession years ago, and the court used the words "highly improbable" and "absurd" to describe a theory from prosecutors that the 11-year-old victim was sexually active, and that explains the presence of someone else's DNA.

"For 19 years, someone who killed Holly Staker has been on the loose - assuming he's still alive, and yet then prosecution and investigation stopped because they were able to extract a confession that should have been seen immediately as unreliable and uncorroborated," said Prof. Lawrence Marshall, co-founder, Center on Wrongful Convictions.

Rivera has been a model prisoner. He's also an artist. This is his work on the wall of the apartment where his mom and dad, and other family members wait.

"It' a new beginning, not only for him, but for the whole family," said Diaz.

The Lake County State's Attorney's Office hasn't said yet whether it will appeal a decision that was unanimous and thoroughly discredited the prosecution's case. His family would like to see Rivera released in time for Christmas, though with a variety of required legal steps ahead, it's not clear yet if that will happen.


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