Will Rivera finally go free in 1992 Waukegan murder?

Court rules on ’92 Waukegan murder

Both sides of the Juan Rivera case said Saturday they were uncertain how they would proceed in the wake of an appellate court ruling erasing Rivera’s conviction for the 1992 rape and murder of an 11-year-old Waukegan girl.

The 2nd Appellate Court in Elgin ruled late Friday that Rivera’s most recent conviction for killing Holly Staker 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 in 2005 that DNA taken from Holly’s vagina during an autopsy absolutely excluded Rivera as the source of the semen found inside the girl.

The controversy intensified in recent weeks following the publication of a scathing New York Times Magazine article that led the lead prosecutor in Rivera’s last trial to announce his retirement and to the publication of an editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times calling the prosecution’s position on the DNA evidence “Stupid.”

Friday’s appellate court ruling, taken by itself, exonerates Rivera, now 39, and bars the state from trying him again for the murder.

But the impact of that decision, both for the defense and prosecution, remained unclear Saturday.

“It (the appellate ruling) is essentially a judgment of acquittal,” said Jeffrey Urdangen of Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions and Rivera’s lead attorney in the 2009 trial.

But Urdangen said he was unsure if the ruling means that Rivera, 39, can walk free from the cell in the Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet where he now resides.

Urdangen said he was unsure if Rivera’s defense team would have to obtain a separate order from the appellate court to secure Rivera’s release but added that he believed no further action would be required by the Lake County courts.

“Let me assure you, though, we will be doing everything humanly possible to expedite Juan’s release,” Urdangen said.

Likewise, Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Waller said Saturday he was undecided if he would appeal the appellate court ruling to the state Supreme Court.

“We are going to study the opinion, confer with our appellate attorneys on Monday and determine a course of action,” Waller said, adding that he would not comment on the specifics of the ruling at this time.

The body of Holly Staker was found Aug. 17, 1992, inside a squalid Waukegan apartment where she and her twin sister, Heather, frequently baby-sat two small children.

She had been stabbed 27 times, strangled and raped and the crime sent a shock wave of horror and fear throughout the community.

In early October of that year, investigators from the recently-formed Lake County Major Crimes Task Force received a tip that Rivera, then 19 and in prison for violating his probation on a burglary conviction, might know something about the crime.

On October 27, 1992, Rivera was brought to Lake County and, according to evidence presented in all three trials, gave police at least two false accounts of his whereabouts at the time of the murder.

Police said Rivera first told them he was at a party at the time, but the people he said were hosting the party testified they had not had a party on that night.

Rivera then said he was breaking into a car at the time of the murder, but Waukegan police received no reports of car burglaries in the area where Rivera said he committed the crime.

On Oct. 30 and 31, Rivera gave police two statements confessing to the crime, the second of which police said they went back for because of factual errors.

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.

From the beginning, defense attorneys characterized that incident as “a psychotic episode” brought on by the relentless interrogation of Rivera over four days while prosecutors said it was an understandable reaction to an admission of such a heinous crime and the likely consequences.

No physical evidence from the apartment — blood stains, fingerprints or otherwise — linked Rivera to the crime and prosecutors claimed the dwelling was too filthy to provide for evidence collection.

At Rivera’s first trial in 1993, he was convicted despite evidence produced by the defense that the blood type of the sample taken from Holly’s body did not match Rivera.

That conviction was reversed by an appellate court ruling that cited a series of errors in the case, which by themselves did not warrant a new trial, but did so when viewed collectively.

At Rivera’s second trial in 1998, his defense team did not present any evidence from the blood sample because of questions raised about its possible contamination during testing by a defense expert.

The appellate court upheld that conviction, but in 2004, Urdangen and other attorneys from the Northwestern University group asked Lake County Circuit Judge Christopher Starck to allow new testing of the sample based on advances in sophistication of DNA analysis.

In 2005, Starck ordered a third trial of the case based on DNA test results that absolutely excluded Rivera as the donor of the sperm found inside Holly.

Rivera was convicted a third time in May 2009 and again sentenced to life in prison.

In its ruling Friday, the appellate court said that prosecutors cannot convict a person based on a confession alone, and that some manner of corroboration of the confession must also be present.

In Rivera’s case, according to the 24-page ruling, the appellate court found that the DNA match to another person was a critical element to Rivera’s conviction for murder during the commission of a sexual assault that could not be overlooked.

“The most reasonable explanation of who sexually penetrated the victim, based on the DNA evidence, is not defendant but rather ‘Unidentified Male #1,’” the ruling states. “The most reasonable explanation, therefore, of who murdered the victim is not defendant but rather someone who, unfortunately, has not been identified.”

The appellate ruling also calls into question the confession itself, saying that 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.

Urdangen said the fault for Rivera’s last conviction lies at the feet of Stark’s pretrial rulings barring the defense from presenting evidence regarding false confessions to the jury and allowing prosecutors to present what he called “outrageously false” evidence.

Urdangen said the prosecution suggestion that the 11-year-old victim was having sex with someone else before she was sexually assaulted and murdered by Rivera was unsupported by a shred of evidence.

“The state should have never been permitted to make the outrageous suggestion there was any evidence that Holly Staker was having a relationship with anyone,” Urdangen said. “It was an egregious breach to allow that to happen.”

Holly Staker
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