Juan Rivera

Juan Rivera (Photo: Randy Belice)

Juan Rivera (Photo: Randy Belice)

Juan Rivera freed after more than 19 years behind bars for a crime it had long been obvious he could not have committed

CWC Client Juan Rivera walked out of Stateville Correctional Center on January 6, 2012, after Lake County State's Attorney Michael Waller announced that the state would not appeal a unanimous Illinois Appellate Court decision throwing out Rivera's conviction for the 1992 murder of 11-year-old Holly Staker in Waukegan.

In what the Chicago Tribune deemed "a withering condemnation of the Lake County criminal justice system," the Appellate Court reversed Rivera's conviction outright on December 9, 2011 and barred a retrial — holding that the evidence, when viewed in the light most favorable to the prosecution, had been insufficient for any "rational trier of fact [to] have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt."

Rivera had been convicted of the crime three times, by three juries, even though no physical evidence from the scene — including fingerprints, skin fragments, blood, and hair — linked him to the crime, and even though law enforcement records indicated that he was on electronic monitoring at his home more than two miles from the scene when the crime occurred. Before his third trial, in 2009, DNA testing positively eliminated him as the source of semen recovered from the victim, whom the prosecution alleged Rivera had raped. All three convictions rested primarily on two uncorroborated confessions that Rivera made following hours of grueling interrogation by members of the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force.

The crime and police interrogation

The crime occurred on August 17, 1992, while the victim was babysitting for two neighbor children in Waukegan. Ten weeks later, as a result of a tip from an informant, investigators began focusing on Rivera, a 19-year-old former special education student, who had been convicted of a burglary — which is why he was on electronic home monitoring. During four days of questioning, Rivera denied knowledge of the crime. But at the end of the fourth day, around midnight, after the interrogation became accusatory, he broke down crying and purportedly nodded when asked if he had raped and killed Holly Staker.

The interrogation continued until 3:00 A.M. when investigators left to type a confession for Rivera to sign. Minutes later, jail personnel saw Rivera beating his head against the wall of his cell. They then took him to a padded cell where, about an hour later, a nurse again found him beating his head against the wall, speaking incoherently, and seemingly unaware of where he was. A little later, the nurse looked in on him and found him lying on the floor in a fetal position. He had pulled tufts of hair from his scalp, with skin attached, and the nurse concluded that he was suffering a psychotic episode.

Shortly after 8:00 A.M., investigators took the typed confession they had prepared to the padded cell, where Rivera signed it. The document — a narrative account of what the investigators claimed Rivera told them — was so riddled with incorrect and implausible information that Lake County State's Attorney Michael Waller instructed investigators to resume the interrogation in an effort to clear up the "inconsistencies." Despite Rivera's obvious fragile mental condition, the interrogation resumed at 11:30 A.M. About 90 minutes later, Rivera signed the second confession, which contained a plausible account of the crime.

State's Attorney Waller promptly called a press conference at which he told reporters that Rivera had been arrested and had made incriminating statements. Reporters quoted investigators as saying that Rivera knew details of the crime that had not been made public. Neither interrogation session was recorded, although recording equipment was available.

Rivera's convictions

Based primarily on the second confession, a jury found Rivera guilty at his first trial in 1993. Prosecutors asked for a death sentence, but the jury rejected it. Judge Christopher C. Starck sentenced Rivera to life in prison without parole. In 1996, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed that conviction based on a series of improper rulings by Starck that had crippled Rivera's right to defend himself at trial.

Two years later, Rivera again was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison by Starck. That conviction was vacated by Starck himself after the Center on Wrongful Convictions obtained DNA testing evidence that eliminated Rivera as the source of seminal evidence. Despite the DNA exclusion, Waller chose to retry the case. On May 8, 2009, a third jury found him guilty. Six weeks later, Starck sentenced him to life in prison for the third time.

Rivera was represented at the third trial by a team of lawyers from the Center on Wrongful Convictions and Jenner & Block LLP, including Thomas P. Sullivan, former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois.

How Confessions trumped DNA

Over defense objections, Judge Starck allowed the prosecution to advance two dubious explanations for why the DNA exclusion did not prove Rivera's innocence — either the semen sample had been contaminated or the semen recovered from Holly's body was unrelated to the crime.

The first explanation made little sense because the DNA was from sperm cells. The forensic witnesses testified that contamination would have been detected and that only one male DNA profile was present. Although the second explanation was possible, by some stretch of the imagination, there was no evidence that Holly Staker had ever had sexual intercourse before she was raped and murdered. Her male neighbors, relatives, and acquaintances had been tested and DNA results excluded them all.

Also over defense objections, Starck allowed the prosecution to suggest that the electronic home monitoring ankle bracelet Rivera was wearing might have malfunctioned, or that Rivera might somehow have slipped out of it to commit the crime. There was no evidence to support either theory. Rivera's electronic ankle bracelet had functioned properly shortly before and shortly after the crime.

Another factor in Rivera's third conviction was a false claim by the prosecution that his confession contained "things that only the killer would know — and things that were even unknown to the investigators themselves." On the witness stand, Lucian S. Tessmann, a retired Waukegan Police Sergeant and one of Rivera's principal interrogators, testified that some facts in the confession were not known to him until Rivera revealed them. The defense had evidence proving that every accurate fact in the confession was known to the police — most of the information in fact had been reported by the news media — but Starck refused to let the jury hear that evidence.

Starck also refused to allow the defense to call expert witnesses to explain how interrogation techniques used in the Rivera case have led scores of suspects in other cases to confess to crimes they didn't commit. The thrust of the expert testimony would have been that suspects of below-normal intelligence tend to be susceptible to suggestion and manipulation, deferential to authority, and prone to confabulation — a combination that renders statements they make under stress unreliable.

Jailhouse snitch testimony

Another factor in Rivera's conviction was Starck's decision, again over defense objections, to allow the prosecution to present the testimony of three jailhouse informants. One of the informants was Ed Martin, whose tip had made Rivera a suspect in the first place. Initially, Martin had said only that, when he and Rivera were together in the Lake County Jail shortly after Holly's murder, Rivera had indicated that he had information about the crime and might know who had committed it. On the witness stand, however, Martin claimed — although he had not mentioned it initially — that Rivera had called Holly "a little bitch" and "a tease" and said she deserved "everything she got."

The testimony of the other informants was not live — both were deceased — but Starck allowed their testimony from prior trials to be read to the jury. Both claimed that Rivera confessed to the murder, but both had incentives to lie. One of them had tried to sell the story to the Chicago Tribune. The other had come forward months after Rivera's supposed revelation — and only when facing sentencing in Lake County for a parole violation.

At Rivera's sentencing, Thomas Sullivan proclaimed that Rivera did not have a trial but only "the trappings and semblance" of one. In his 57 years as a prosecutor and a defense lawyer, said Sullivan, "I do not recall a case in which so many rulings, in my opinion, were wrong."

A ruling favorable to the defense on any one of the evidentiary issues might well have changed the outcome of the trial, in view of the fact that jurors deliberated almost 35 hours and had informed Starck that they were deadlocked at one point before returning the guilty verdict.

Rivera's third appeal and reversal

Stanford University Law Professor Lawrence C. Marshall, who was co-founder of the Center on Wrongful Convictions in 1999 when he was a professor at Northwestern Law School, was the lead lawyer for the appeal of Rivera's third conviction. Marshall was joined by co-counsel from the Jenner & Block LLP and the Center.

Among the issues raised on appeal were whether the evidence had been sufficient to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, whether Rivera had been denied his right to present a defense when Starck refused to allow the defense to present evidence rebutting the false claim of the police that Rivera knew facts only the perpetrator would have known, and whether Rivera's confessions should have been suppressed on the ground that they were involuntary.

The Appellate Court opinion — written by Justice Susan F. Hutchinson, with Justices John J. Bowman and Robert D. McLaren concurring — chastised the prosecution for advancing "highly improbable" theories that distorted the evidence "to an absurd degree" at the trial. Rivera, Hutchinson wrote, had "suffered the nightmare of wrongful incarceration." Finding the evidence insufficient as a matter of law, the Appellate Court did not reach other issues raised in the appeal.

Prosecution drops case

The decision barred trying Rivera again. The state could have appealed, although it was unlikely that the Illinois Supreme Court would agree to hear the case. Thus, in all likelihood, the appeal would only have delayed Rivera's release. The deadline for filing an appeal was 35 days after the Appellate Court decision. Eleven days short of the deadline — January 11 — State's Attorney Waller announced that he was abandoning the case and within hours Rivera was released from prison.

NY Times Magazine | Watch the Video (video)

Archive News Coverage: ChicagoTribune | EricZorn

— Rob Warden