CHICAGO (CBS) — A former Waukegan man walked out of state prison Friday after Lake County prosecutors announced they would not challenge an appeals court’s decision to reverse his latest conviction.
The court recently threw out Juan Rivera’s third murder conviction for stabbing 11-year-old Holly Staker more in August 1992. Rivera’s 2009 conviction was “unjustified and cannot stand” because of a lack of evidence tying him to Staker’s rape and murder, the 2nd District Appellate Court panel said in its 3-0 ruling in December.
Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Waller, in a release Friday, said, “I have spent the last few weeks carefully reviewing and assessing the appellate court’s opinion, as well as considering the strengths and weaknesses of all the evidence in the Juan Rivera case.
“As a result of that examination, I have decided that I will not ask the Illinois Supreme Court to review the appellate court’s decision reversing Mr. Rivera’s guilty verdict. Therefore, the prosecution of Mr. Rivera comes to a conclusion today.”
Rivera walked out of the Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet a little after 4 p.m. Friday and had an emotional reunion with friends and family.
He said he has no bitterness or anger and wants to start a new chapter by going to college.
“It’s a beautiful feeling to know that I have no limits now,” Rivera said, holding his mother’s hand.
The case has drawn national attention in part because DNA evidence found in Staker’s body doesn’t match Rivera, a former Waukegan resident who lived near the apartment where Staker was killed while babysitting two younger children.
Rivera initially was convicted of the killing in 1993, but that guilty finding later was overturned on appeal. He was re-tried in 1998 and convicted again.
A Lake County judge agreed in 2006 to allow a third trial after advances in DNA testing confirmed that evidence found in Staker’s body didn’t match Rivera.
Despite that contradictory DNA evidence, a Lake County jury in 2009 deliberated for 35 hours over four days before again convicting Rivera of the slaying.
He received a life sentence after each of his convictions.
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Lawrence C. Marshall, the lead attorney for Juan Rivera’s appeal, said, “We are pleased that Mr. Waller has accepted the appellate court’s decision reversing Mr. Rivera’s conviction. Obviously, we have issues with Mr. Waller’s office for pursuing the case over the years after DNA excluded Mr. Rivera as the source of semen recovered from the victim, but Mr. Waller could have further extended the process with an appeal, thus delaying Mr. Rivera’s release from prison. We are grateful that Mr. Waller chose not to do that.”