DNA evidence undermining beleaguered Lake County prosecutors

Attacks on Lake County prosecutors’ pursuit of criminal cases in which DNA evidence does not match the person charged are certain to ramp up in the wake of the Juan Rivera appellate court decision.

One attorney representing a man convicted in a 1986 rape who was freed after DNA from the victim was proved not to match his client said Saturday the Rivera decision was “the first strike against what I call the echo chamber” of the Lake County court system.

The appellate court threw out Rivera’s third conviction for the 1992 rape and murder of 11-year-old Holly Staker of Waukegan after ruling Friday night that there was insufficient evidence to find Rivera guilty. Rivera, 39, has been incarcerated since he was 19.

DNA taken from Holly’s body did not match Rivera. It is at least the fourth Lake County case in recent years in which DNA evidence pointed away from the person charged or convicted of the crime.

Jerry Hobbs III spent five years in jail awaiting trial for the murders of his daughter and another little girl before DNA taken from his daughter’s body was matched to a man in custody in another state for other crimes.

Bennie Starks of Zion is awaiting an appellate court decision on his request to be spared another trial for a 1986 conviction for sexual assault and aggravated battery where DNA taken from the 69-year-old victim was found to not match him.

And police are reinvestigating the case of a 1994 murder of a Waukegan store owner after it was discovered that blood found inside the victim’s store and car does not match James Edwards, currently serving a life sentence for the crime. State’s Attorney Michael Waller, who is retiring next year from the office he has held since 1990, declined to comment Saturday on any of the cases in which the DNA evidence has raised questions. Last week, he announced the retirement of the lead prosecutor in many of the office’s high-profile DNA cases, Michael Mermel, 60, after comments he made in a New York Times article about use of DNA evidence that were deemed inappropriate. Mermel joined the office in 1990.

Jed Stone, a Waukegan attorney representing Starks, said he believes the Rivera decision may establish a more inquisitive state of mind on the part of prosecutors when it comes to DNA.

Stone said in some of the cases now under the microscope, prosecutors have advanced “absurd” theories to defend their positions.

“In Rivera, they claimed the victim was a promiscuous 11-year-old girl, in Starks they claimed to have a 69-year-old prostitute on their hands and Laura Hobbs supposedly got semen in her (body) by rolling around in the grass where other people had sex,” Stone said.

“In any other context, prosecutors who made those claims would be laughed at, ridiculed and have doors closed in their faces,” he continued.

Stone said he believes a system populated by mainly conservative Republicans dominates the Lake County legal culture and creates an “echo chamber” where people who believe the same thing and share a similar world view tend to agree with each other.

Stone said he believed the Rivera ruling would restore what he sees as a need for a better balance in the Lake County courts.

“The Rivera ruling restores my faith in a justice system that rejects poppycock,” he said. “It affirms my belief that people who are charged with crimes are not ‘others,’ they are us and deserve to be treated thoughtfully and respectfully.”

Conviction overturned

Michael Waller
Michael Mermel
Jerry Hobbs III

Rivera case timeline

Aug. 17, 1992 — Holly Staker, 11-year-old Waukegan honor student, was raped and stabbed 27 times while baby-sitting.

Nov. 19, 1993 — Juan Rivera, who was 19 and under house arrest with an ankle monitor for car burglary at the time of the murder, was convicted on the basis of a confession obtained over four days of interrogation.

Dec. 21, 1993 — Rivera received a life sentence.

Nov. 19, 1996 — Appellate judges throw out conviction, citing four trial errors, including the trial judge’s barring defense attorneys from saying in their opening statement that DNA evidence did not link Rivera to the crime. The attorneys were allowed to present testimony on the DNA.

October 1998 — Rivera is convicted the second time after the jury deliberates 36 hours over four days, at that time the longest in Lake County history.

August 2006 — Chief Circuit Court Judge Christopher Starck, who presided over all three of Rivera’s trials, orders a third trial because “science has progressed and we have more refined DNA testing.”

May 2009 — Rivera is convicted a third time by a jury that deliberates 32 hours.

Dec. 9 — Appellate court overturns the conviction, citing problems with the confession and with the state’s “highly improbable” theories related to the lack of DNA evidence linking Rivera to the crime.

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