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Wrongfully Convicted Man Adjusts To Freedom After 21 Years

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Jacques Rivera

Jacques Rivera talks with CBS 2’s Susanna Song about adjusting to freedom after 21 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. (Credit: CBS)

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CHICAGO (CBS) — A 46-year-old Humboldt Park man is adjusting to his newfound freedom, after 21 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

As CBS 2’s Susanna Song reports, for Jacques Rivera, it really is the first day of the rest of his life after his wrongful conviction. He was released from prison Tuesday, after having his conviction tossed because the lone witness in the case recanted his testimony.

On Wednesday, Rivera was still trying to get used to his new environment.

“I kept looking out the window, making sure I was at where I was at,” Rivera said. “But it was good to see people walking around. It was like, you know, I want to go out and hug everybody.”

Rivera enjoyed a bowl of cereal and a cup of French vanilla coffee with real cream – something he hasn’t tasted in more than two decades. And he didn’t have to wait to get his breakfast served. In fact, he chose what to eat and when to eat.

Rivera said he is not angry about his wrongful conviction.

“Not angry – that’ll eat you alive. Anger, bitterness and hatred – I can’t. I want to live. I can’t let that hold me down. It’ll hold me down,” he said. “I learned something from it. It was a lesson. I learned to appreciate life.”

Rivera admitted he had trouble sleeping Tuesday night, as he has to get used to all the quiet.

“I’m used to seeing inmates walking past and everything, so that was a change, but I didn’t sleep very well,” he said. “I’m used to hearing bars and guys banging on the walls all night.”

With Rivera’s freedom also comes a deeper longing to be faithful.

“I love Him. I love Jesus with all my heart, and that’s what got me through all this,” he said.

Rivera’s mother, Gwen Rivera, had dreamed of the day she could be with her son in their home. They reunited with tears of joy Tuesday night outside the Cook County Jail.

Rivera was convicted of 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.

Rivera had been serving an 80-year sentence for the murder. But he said he knew he would one day be exonerated.

“I knew eventually the truth was going to come out,” he said.

Rivera’s youngest daughter, now 23, was just a baby when her father went to prison.

“Especially my daughter – you know, my daughter’s my heart and I love her, and I just thank God that He guided them.”

Rivera and his family planned to spend Wednesday driving around the city, so he could see how much the neighborhoods have changed. He was also to meet with his attorney Wednesday.

He said an ideal job would be either with a church or a community group.

Rivera also brought up the Valentin family who lost their son in 1988, and says he hopes they will find justice someday.

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