August 23, 2012
The Chicago Tribune
Juan Rivera, other exonerated men look for a place in the world after prison
By: Dan Hinkel, Ruth Fuller
Just as he did during the 20 years he spent in prison for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in Waukegan, Juan Rivera lives by a rigid routine.
Seven months after he was freed by appeals judges who cited DNA evidence indicating his innocence, Rivera wakes at 5 a.m. every day and goes to work. He exercises for 90 minutes each afternoon, and he plays basketball on Tuesday nights. Rivera, 39, remains a vegan, and the home he shares with his wife, Melissa, and two of her grandchildren in the north suburbs is spotless, just as his prison cell was.
Imprisonment instilled a need for order and routine, but his incarceration and exoneration also left unwelcome legacies.
He's wary of celebrity treatment; a stranger recently hugged him and burst into tears at a gas station, Rivera said. Worse, an acquaintance recently told him a man had threatened his life, though the threat's credibility was unclear.
He described going out in public as "unnerving." He assesses the danger of those who approach, and he notes what passers-by have in their hands, he said.
"I walk fast and am always looking behind my back," Rivera said in a rare interview.
Once the welcome-home parties and headlines end, exonerated former inmates like Rivera are left to cope with the same challenges that confront any convict upon release — easing the vigilance learned in prison, mending family relationships and finding work in spite of thin resumes, experts said.
Beyond that, the exonerated often struggle with the confusion that comes with suffering an injustice, said Angela Amel, director of social work for the Innocence Project in New York. Failure or triumph can hinge on family support or jobs that offer the structure inmates learn to expect.
"In prison, everything is so ordered," Amel said. "Out here, it's so not."
Many of the exonerated leave prison broke, with strained family ties and holes in their work histories they have to explain to prospective employers. Often former inmates turn to the legal institutions that helped free them, said both Amel and Rob Warden, executive director of Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions, which sought Rivera's freedom.
Like the Innocence Project, the center at Northwestern employs social workers who help coordinate such things as getting state identification, Warden said. Center employees are barred from lending money to clients, but help comes informally, with employees sometimes donating essentials such as bed linens, he said. Private donors support some clients, Warden said.
The center offers financial literacy training because many clients entered prison as teenagers without bank accounts or checkbooks, Warden said. Some former inmates stand to take in cash from lawsuits against police and prosecutors, along with state compensation that can amount to $200,000.
"It's their money and whatever they want to do with it … but sometimes we just wring our hands and cry that this person just went out and bought a new BMW or something," Warden said.
Employment is "the most important medicine" for many former inmates because jobs provide money, structure and a sense of having a role in society, Amel said. Warden said the center's employees are willing to explain the evidence of a client's innocence to a prospective employer.
Another man freed by DNA evidence in Lake County, Bennie Starks, has struggled to keep a job.
After Starks spent 20 years in prison for the rape of a 69-year-old woman in Waukegan, appeals judges ordered a new trial, and he was released on bond in 2006. Prosecutors in May dropped the rape charge.
Starks' and Rivera's are among four cases out of Lake County that have been dismantled by DNA evidence in the last two years. In each case, State's Attorney Michael Waller insisted on the suspect's guilt even after forensic evidence suggested his innocence.
Waller did not return a call for comment.
Starks, of Chicago, worked in retail and for a transportation company, but the retail store moved from the area and the other company folded, he said. Starks said his employability was hurt by the rape charge that remained pending for years after his release. He also hasn't avoided legal trouble, incurring misdemeanor disorderly conduct and battery convictions in Wisconsin in 2010 and 2011, according to court records.
Starks, an Innocence Project client, is unemployed, and he said he doesn't have much hope for finding work before the resolution of the battle over an aggravated battery conviction stemming from the same 1986 incident as the rape charge. Although prosecutors dropped the rape charge, they have asked for reconsideration of an appeals court ruling that made room for Starks to challenge his battery conviction.
Starks, 53, hopes that battle ends soon so he can apply for state compensation and so his record looks better to employers. He worries, though, that his age and complicated past might scare off employers.
"There's only so much you can put on the application," he said.
Rivera got his new job with the help of the Center on Wrongful Convictions. The Tribune is not describing his workplace because of Rivera's safety concerns.
Rivera's ordeal began in 1992, while he was jailed for burglary, when he confessed to raping and murdering baby sitter Holly Staker. He was tried and convicted three times, the last in 2009, despite DNA evidence indicating someone else had sex with the girl.
Prosecutors insisted she must have had sex with another man separate from her slaying and pointed to Rivera's confession. Rivera's lawyers argued that detectives coerced the confession over a span of four days.
Appeals judges cited the DNA evidence and tactics used during the interrogation in throwing out Rivera's conviction in December. Prosecutors declined to fight the ruling, and Rivera left prison in January.
Now he hopes to attend Northwestern to study accounting and business management. He aspires to start a restaurant that employs paroled or exonerated inmates. As he eyes his future, Rivera said his present is improving — his anxiety about being in public is receding, and he feels less driven to closely watch every approaching person.
One recent day, he went to a birthday party for his wife's 9-year-old grandson at Waukegan's Bowen Park. Fit and agile from daily workouts, Rivera joined the children in gliding across a giant spiderweb apparatus, a sight that could not have differed more from his circumstances last summer.
Amel, the Innocence Project social worker, said former inmates often fare better in the outside world if they passed their time in prison nurturing the belief that they would one day go free. Rivera said he never wavered in his certainty that he would one day face the challenge of rejoining the world.
"I just didn't know it would be so soon," he said.