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UPDATED 10/05/11 5:21 a.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) – A 46-year-old Humboldt Park man who spent nearly half his life behind bars was freed from prison on Tuesday, after the lone witness in the case recanted his testimony.
Jacques Rivera when walked out of Cook County Jail Tuesday night, his murder conviction tossed out. His mother, Gwen Rivera, ran through the gate outside the jail to embrace him, with his eldest son and daughter, in a group hug that lasted for more than two minutes.
The family’s sobbing was audible just moments after Rivera came out.
“I have a different outlook on life,” Rivera said after walking out of the jail. “It’s a different perspective. I’m looking at different things … in a different eyesight, you know what I mean? … I definitely look at life differently. I appreciate it more and I respect life more.”
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For a man who has spent years in a cell behind bars, it was clear his faith had grown. He got a group together and prayed out loud, and said what he most wants now is to go to church.
“I thank God, my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” Rivera said. “He’s the one that brought this all about.”
His family said it was a dream come true to see him walk free.
“I felt wonderful. I mean, even sitting for him to come out, until you see him walking down … that’s amazing,” his mother said. “Until you see him walking … it’s just … I mean, I was afraid somebody was going to pinch me and say ‘you’re dreaming.’”
Rivera was sent to jail in the 1988 murder of 16-year-old Felix Valentin, based largely on the testimony of a 12-year-old boy who told police he saw Rivera shoot Valentin.
But the witness, now 35, changed his story, prompting Judge Neera Lall Walsh to order a new trial last month. On Tuesday, prosecutors said they would not re-try Rivera and all charges were dropped.
But before prosecutors dropped charges, Rivera said they tried to cut a deal with him. He said he is not angry with the police department or the witness, just upset with the system that imprisoned him.
“Somebody can say you did a murder and you’re going to prison for it, just from one person saying it, with no other evidence corroborating, nothing,” Rivera said. “In the law it shouldn’t happen. They should have more evidence to corroborate an eyewitness testimony to convict somebody on a first-degree murder.”
Rivera had been serving an 80-year sentence for the murder and was behind bars for more than 21 years.
Tuesday night, Rivera arrived at his mother’s home to begin rebuilding his life. Just sitting on the front porch was a cherished moment 21 years in the making for Rivera and his mother.
His thoughts turned to much needed rest outside the walls of jail.
“I can’t wait to sleep in my bed after sleeping on those steel beds all these years, killing my back,” Rivera said.
Rivera said his first night out of jail is about rebirth – the first time he’s seen the home he’ll share with his mom and sister and the first time he’s seen all the new technology invented while he was in jail.
The lone witness in the case identified Rivera as the shooter and testified against him at trial, but the witness, Orlando Lopez, now 35, recently admitted he identified the wrong man.
Rivera’s attorneys said Lopez saw the real shooter a week after he identified Rivera in a lineup. The witness said he told authorities the new information, but they didn’t believe him.
At the time, police thought the witness was recanting because he feared gang retaliation and Lopez decided to stand by his original claim that Rivera was the killer.
“I didn’t need the recantation, though. My innocence was proven from the very beginning. The evidence they had never fit me,” Rivera said.
Rivera went so far last spring as to refuse a deal that would have given him freedom in exchange for time served.
“I didn’t accept that deal because that’s not truth,” he said. “The victim’s family deserves the truth — who killed their son. I didn’t kill him, and they deserve to know the truth.”
Rivera said he long ago forgave police and the boy who testified against him.
“I’m not blaming the Chicago Police Department. You know, you’ve got good officers out there. You know, you can’t make one bad officer spoil the whole bunch,” Rivera said. “But it’s just, it’s not necessary.”
Rivera was also surrounded by his three adult children as he left Cook County Jail. Rivera’s daughter, now 23, was just a 4-month-old baby when her father went to prison.
“Their growing up, if anything, that’s what I missed the most,” he said, “their growing up; being a father to them.”
Upon returning home to the city’s Northwest Side, Rivera realized a lot more than his children have changed. His family showed him an iPad, which he called “beautiful.”
Rivera said her son wants to keep a low profile at first, other than joining a church. Jacques Jr. brought him a Walter Payton bears’ game jersey, and Rivera’s mother said he would like to attend a Bears game.