Juan Rivera, 42, who endured three trials and twenty years of wrongful imprisonment before being exonerated of a vicious crime, has reached a $20 million settlement agreement with Lake County (IL) authorities. His $1 million award for each year in prison will enable him to pursue his education and assist his family, but, as reported in the Chicago Sun-Times (here), Rivera said, “I still would prefer my 20 years back [over] the $20 million.”
The settlement cost will be shared by the county and several municipalities that contributed police work in the investigation of the brutal crime. The largest amount will be paid by the city of Waukegan where the crime occurred.
Rivera was convicted of the 1992 rape and murder of 11-year-old Holly Staker. His conviction was based primarily on a confession that occurred over four days of interrogation. Rivera’s first confession was inconsistent with the crime. Authorities continued to interrogate him until he eventually signed a believable confession. He was convicted on November 19, 1993, and sentenced to life in prison.
Three years later, on November 9, 1996, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed the conviction and remanded the case for a new trial. Again Rivera was convicted, largely on the strength of his second confession.
When DNA excluded him in 2005 from the rape kit evidence, the trial court judge, Judge Christopher C. Starck, who had twice sentenced Rivera to life in prison, vacated the conviction and ordered a new trial. Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Waller chose to retry Rivera a third time in spite of the inconvenient DNA evidence that excluded him.
At the third trial in April 2009, Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Mermel successfully argued that the 11-year-old victim may have been sexually active or perhaps the lab technicians mishandled the DNA evidence … two suggested explanations for the DNA mismatch of biological crime evidence recovered from the victim and Rivera. Once again, Rivera was convicted and Judge Starck sentenced him to life in prison for the third time.
On December 9, 2011, the Illinois Appellate Court ruled that Rivera’s conviction was “unjustified and cannot stand,” and State’s Attorney Waller declined to try Rivera a fourth time. Rivera was released from prison in January 2012.
In October 2012, Rivera filed his federal wrongful conviction lawsuit, which, as reported by the Chicago Sun-Times, focused on high-top shoes never introduced at trial. While police had suggested that Rivera had worn the shoes during the murder, DNA analysis of the blood on them excluded Rivera and matched the DNA of semen extracted from the victim’s body. That DNA profile remains unidentified.
Locke Bowman, an attorney who represented Rivera through Northwestern University’s MacArthur Justice Center, called Rivera’s conviction “a stellar example of miscarriage of justice.”
Jon Loevy of Loevy & Loevy, who represented Rivera in the federal lawsuit, noted that the record award for such a case in Illinois was settled before trial because the entities involved did not want to risk taking the case to court. While many exonerated persons receive no compensation, those who have a credible case of official overreach or misconduct can receive significant compensation awards.
Rivera was represented by a host of attorneys over the years. Stanford University Law Professor Lawrence C. Marshall, co-founder of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, was lead attorney in Rivera’s third trial, with co-counsel from Jenner & Block LLP and the Center. Rob Warden, now Executive Director Emeritus of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, was an outspoken advocate, and the Center’s late Jane Raley, among others, worked on the case for more than a decade before the Illinois Appellate Court reversed Rivera’s conviction.
The Rivera settlement follows the recent exoneration and release of Angel Gonzalez, supported by current Lake County State’s Attorney Michae Nerheim. Gonzalez also spent about 20 years in prison for rape before DNA exonerated him. Both men — and three others exonerated in recent years — were wrongfully convicted during the more than two decades of Michael Waller’s tenure as Lake County State’s Attorney. The wrongful convictions tarnished Waller’s service in office and raise questions of other possible miscarriages yet unrecognized or unproven.
Lake County State’s Attorney Nerheim succeeded Waller with the promise of wrongful conviction reform. As reported in the Daily Herald (here), Nerheim has noted, “It’s the duty of prosecutors to seek justice, both before and after a conviction.”
The Chicago Innocence Project has recognized Nerheim (here) as a prosecutor who is “getting it right” by being “committed to convicting the guilty and protecting the innocent.”
Congratulations to Mr. Rivera, his family, the countless lawyers and persons mentioned and unmentioned who worked on this case for many years. And, thank you, Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Nerheim, for your commitment to change office culture and pursue truth, before and after convictions.