Juan Rivera, the man convicted three times of the 1992 rape and murder of an 11-year-old Waukegan girl, walked out of Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet Friday afternoon a free man for the first time in more than 19 years.
Attorneys for the 39-year-old Rivera secured the order allowing his release hours after Lake County State's Attorney Michael Waller said he would not challenge an appellate court ruling throwing out Rivera's conviction in Holly Staker's murder.
More than a dozen family members greeted Rivera with sobs of joy and warm embraces.
"This is a new beginning for me," Rivera said moments after walking out of the prison, a smile stretched across his face. "I'm home."
Rebecca Leon, Rivera's younger sister, was only 12 when her brother was first convicted.
"He was my role model; they took him away from me," she said, tears streaming down her face. "I have him back, my kids have him."
Holding tightly to his mother's hand, Rivera called his release "absolutely surreal" and said he is looking forward to spending time with his family, going to school and educating others about his experience.
"(Police) do use tactics to make people falsely confess. They abuse you mentally, not just physically, and people need to be more aware of what a confession is, as well as DNA," he said.
But Rivera maintained he isn't bitter.
"They had a job to do and they felt that they were doing the proper job at that moment," he said. "I thank God that they realized that the court system saw the truth and they allowed it to continue happening, they didn't fight it.
"There's no bitterness or anger toward anyone," he added. "Mistakes happen."
In the statement released Friday by his office, Waller said he had been "reviewing and assessing the appellate court's opinion, as well as considering the strengths and weaknesses of all the evidence" in the case since the appellate decision was announced Dec. 9.
"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," the statement says. "Therefore, the prosecution of Mr. Rivera comes to a conclusion today."
Waller did not comment beyond the written statement.
"It's what we have been waiting for. We're just happy," said Rivera's brother, Miguel Diaz. "We just got the best gift we could ever have. It's just like Santa Claus. Christmas. In Puerto Rico we celebrate the Three Wise Men. That's what we got, a gift from God."
Attorneys with the Center for Wrongful Convictions -- which filed the petition for Rivera's third trial, served as the lead attorneys in that trial and handled his appeal -- called it "a day of joy and happiness."
Attorney Rob Warden said the group hopes Lake County authorities will reopen the Staker investigation, and they offered to help in any way to find the person responsible for the murder.
But he also expressed hope the case would touch off a serious re-examination of police interrogation practices in Lake County and elsewhere that lead to false confessions, including Rivera's.
"We have obviously found the case very perplexing. It seemed abundantly clear to us and to every lawyer who has represented Juan Rivera since the very beginning that he is innocent," Warden said. "Anyway, we're glad that it's finally over. Our only regret is that it took 20 years."
As for any legal action that might be filed by Rivera, Warden said, "That's the furthest thing from our mind today and the furthest thing from his mind. I just can't comment on that."
'Slap in the face'
In his statement, Waller pointed out that three juries had found Rivera guilty of the crime, and the appellate court had affirmed the conviction once. Even in reversing Rivera's first conviction in 1993 for several procedural errors in the trial, it stated there was enough evidence for Rivera to have been found guilty.
Holly Staker's mother, Nancy Kalinowski, has long believed Juan Rivera killed her daughter, and her faith in the prosecution has not wavered through three trials, and now Rivera's release.
She said Friday she is outraged that the appellate court ignored the verdicts of three different juries.
"Thirty-six jurors heard the evidence; they all said he was guilty, and now all of a sudden he just walks out," she said. "That is a slap in the face to those jurors, and a slap in my family's face."
Holly's body was found Aug. 17, 1992, inside a filthy Waukegan apartment where she and her twin sister, Heather, frequently baby-sat two small children.
She had been stabbed 27 times, strangled and raped. The crime sent a shock wave of horror and fear throughout the community.
A tip to detectives on the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force in early October of that year identified Rivera, then 19 and in prison at the time for violating his probation on a burglary conviction, as someone who might know something about the crime. He was questioned by task force detectives and gave them two confessions on Oct. 30 and 31.
He was first convicted in 1993 by a jury that was told the blood type of the semen sample taken from Holly's body did not match Rivera's.
That conviction was overturned by an appellate court ruling that cited a series of errors in the trial that by themselves did not warrant a new trial but did so when taken collectively.
At Rivera's second trial in 1998, his defense team did not present any evidence from the semen sample because of questions raised about its possible contamination during testing by a defense expert.
The appellate court upheld that conviction, but Lake County Circuit Judge Christopher Starck ordered a third trial in 2005 after attorneys for the Center on Wrongful Convictions showed new testing that definitely confirmed the semen sample was not Rivera's.
Rivera was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in May 2009, but last month's ruling by the appellate court threw out that conviction and barred any further proceedings against Rivera without further action by the reviewing courts.
The 2nd Appellate Court in Elgin ruled the most recent conviction could not stand because, in the words of Justice Susan Hutchinson, "No rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt."
The case has been fraught with controversy since it was established that DNA taken from Holly's vagina during an autopsy absolutely excluded Rivera as the source of the semen inside the girl.
In its ruling, the appellate court said prosecutors cannot convict a person based on confession alone, and some manner of corroboration of the confession must also be present.
The ruling also calls into question the confession itself, saying although prosecutors claimed Rivera gave them details of the crime only the killer would know, the record of the case is that police asked leading questions during the interrogation and may have fed Rivera those facts.
Waller said he was aware his decision would be seen in different ways by different groups.
"I am mindful that for Mr. Rivera and some others, this decision will be viewed as too late in coming," his statement says. "I am also mindful that for others, including the experienced and dedicated law enforcement officers who investigated this crime and the family of Holly Staker, this decision will be perceived as premature.
"All I can say is that I believe this is the right decision at this time."
On Friday outside Stateville, Rivera looked clean-cut in a new bright white long-sleeve shirt, and the smile never faded from his face. His nieces, who had never seen him outside prison, hung on to him, crying uncontrollably, as he spoke with the swarm of reporters that formed nearly a full circle around the family.
"Life starts now, OK?" Rivera told one of the girls, to comfort her.
Asked what his plans were for tonight or what he wanted to eat first, he said he had no idea, he just wanted to spend time with his family. He's vegan, he said, but would let his mom cook him whatever she wanted. He and the family drove off, against the backdrop of a spectacular sunset of pinks and oranges and purples.
• Daily Herald Staff Writer Steve Zalusky contributed to this report.