It has been a long wait for Juan Rivera’s family.
Those years have been filled with hope that he one day would be cleared of his 1992 conviction for the rape and murder of 11-year-old Holly Staker of Waukegan.
But those hopes always were shattered by disappointment, until late Friday when the Illinois Appellate Court overturned the 39-year-old Waukegan man’s conviction and, for now, blocked a fourth retrial.
“It was hard to believe at first, but we knew it was coming, especially with all the coverage (in the media) and with (Lake County prosecutor Michael) Mermel retiring,” Rivera’s wife, Melissa Sanders-Rivera, said Sunday.
And yet, in the back of her mind remains the knowledge that it could all be taken away, “because it has happened so many times.”
Sanders-Rivera said she first learned of the appellate court’s decision Friday, a day before Rivera learned the news.
“We’re hoping to have him home real soon,” she said. “(Juan) is excited. It has been a long time coming. But he is a very patient man. He said that he is ready and he is at peace. He is prepared to come out.”
Sanders-Rivera said her husband’s legal team met Saturday, and his attorney, Lawrence Marshall, will determine the next steps.
Rivera’s brother, Miguel Diaz, also received news of the appellate ruling Friday night.
“I was in shock, basically,” he said. “There have been three convictions. Every time we think something is going happen, it (doesn’t) work out that way.
“We’re just looking forward to having him home,” Diaz said.
The body of Holly Staker was found Aug. 17, 1992, inside a Waukegan apartment where she and her twin sister, Heather, frequently baby-sat two small children. She had been stabbed 27 times, strangled and raped.
Investigators questioned Rivera in late October 1992 and, according to testimony at three trials, he gave two statements confessing to the crime. In between the two statements, Rivera was found banging his head against the wall of his cell, crying uncontrollably and pulling out his own hair.
Questions surrounding the case intensified in 2005 when it was disclosed that DNA taken from Holly’s body after her murder could not have come from Rivera.
Last week’s appellate court ruling found that “no rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.”
If Rivera goes free — something that may depend on whether Lake County prosecutors decide to appeal the latest decision to the Illinois Supreme Court — he plans to work with individuals who have been wrongly incarcerated, his wife said.
“The big thing for him is to make sure that this case is solved,” she added.
The Riveras married 12 years ago, after meeting while Melissa was a criminal justice major performing volunteer work through adult probation in Lake County. After Rivera lost his second trial, she contacted him with the intention of assisting him with his case.
“I have great respect for him as a person. He has grown so much (and) educated himself,” she said. “He is just a very personable person. You love him when you meet him.”
Miguel Diaz said the years have taken their toll.
“It has been real hard knowing that this can happen to our family,” he said, adding that he wavered in the belief in his younger brother’s innocence. ”It was hard because we didn’t really know where to go. We had our hands tied behind our back at first.”
“It was frustrating that Lake County was so adamant that the DNA was inconsequential,” Sanders-Rivera added. “It is so obvious that he was innocent, and we weren’t heard. That was the most frustrating part really. Obviously with three trials, we weren’t being heard by the courts at least.”
But even with the many years of frustration and disappointment still fresh in the family’s memory, Sanders-Rivera said it is time to move forward.
“Now we’re starting our lives. You can’t be angry and resentful about the past. Move forward.”Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.