Illinois court clears man of 1992 rape, murder of eleven-year-old

Monday, December 12, 2011

Chicago, from file.

A man who has been behind bars since 1992 is now cleared of wrongdoing in Illinois. Juan Rivera Jr. was tried three times for the rape and murder of Holly Staker, eleven, and convicted each time.

The evidence against Rivera centered on a disputed confession. Police questioned him for four days before he confessed. Prosecutors claimed the confession contained details only the perpetrator could know and Rivera was convicted, receiving life without parole. However, the new court ruling notes some details were reported by press and others were given to him by investigators asking leading questions. The ruling acknowledges this needn't have been unintentional and considers "psychological suggestion or linguistic manipulation."

No physical evidence linked Rivera to the young babysitter's death in a Chicago suburb. DNA testing in 2005 on sperm inside her body, which prosecution did not dispute was left there shortly before her death, showed it was not Rivera's; neither were blood and prints at the scene. At the 2009 retrial the prosecution posited two theories for the sperm mismatch: it was either contaminated, or the young girl was sexually active and it belonged to her lover. Rivera was electronically tagged at the time and the device placed him at home during the crime.

The Second District Illinois Appellate Court's new opinion holds that Rivera "has suffered the nightmare of wrongful incarceration," and that the girl's killer remains unknown.

Rivera was tried in Lake County, where prosecutors have a history of challenging DNA evidence. The most recent prosecutor in this case was Michael Mermel, who resigned over opposition from his bosses to comments he gave The New York Times. The Times used them in a piece highlighting the use of DNA evidence in Lake County.

It is unclear if legal process will move quickly enough to allow Rivera to be released before the new year. Prosecutors may yet challenge his release. Rivera described cheering from fellow inmates as the news reached them. "This is all I know, 19 years, this type of environment," he said. "It's strange to say, but I’m going to miss all my friends." He is now 39.