Juan Rivera gets $20M after three convictions: 'I'm bitter, but I'm not angry'

Juan Rivera - the subject of one of Illinois' most notorious wrongful conviction cases - stands to receive $20 million from a newly settled lawsuit against the law-enforcement agencies that sent him to prison.

That's $1 million for each of the nearly 20 years he spent behind bars.

Rivera was joined by relatives and his attorneys Friday at a news conference in Chicago to announce the settlement. It is believed to be the largest wrongful-conviction award in U.S. history.

But Rivera, who was three times convicted of killing 11-year-old Holly Staker in Waukegan in 1992 before DNA evidence exonerated him, was hardly celebratory.

"I still would prefer my 20 years with my family than $20 million," said Rivera, formerly of Waukegan.

The federal lawsuit targeted Lake County, Waukegan and the towns that comprise the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force, as well as several individual defendants. It was set to go to trial in June.

Former Lake County State's Attorney Michael Waller, whose office oversaw Rivera's prosecutions, couldn't be reached for comment.

Waller was among the individuals named in the lawsuit, along with Sheriff Mark Curran, former Sheriff Gary Del Re and representatives of the major crimes task force.

Rivera was convicted of killing Staker by three separate juries through the years. He was sentenced to life in prison after each conviction.

DNA evidence eventually pointed elsewhere, and he was released from prison in January 2012. The wrongful conviction lawsuit was filed that October.

Rivera's news conference was at the Near West Side offices of the Loevy and Loevy law firm, which helped represent him in the case. Representatives from the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University law school also participated.

Rivera and his team spoke and answered questions in English and Spanish for about 20 minutes. They stood in a line near a microphone stand in a room packed with reporters, photographers and camera operators.

"So much was taken from him," attorney Jon Loevy said. "Twenty years of his life for something he didn't do is an unfathomable injury."

Rivera said he's "resentful" about the years spent in prison.

"Yes, I'm bitter, but I'm not angry," he said. "To live angry, I would not be a happy person."

The agencies and individuals named as defendants will share responsibility for the $20 million payout, Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor said.

The county board's financial and administrative committee likely will vote later this month to approve the county's portion of the sum, he said.

Lawlor called the Rivera case tragic, and he expressed sadness that Rivera spent two decades in prison for the crime.

"The county board hates that it happened, and the toll that it takes on the individuals involved and the toll that it takes on taxpayers who have to pay for it," he said.

The Rivera case is one of five wrongful prosecution cases that have been uncovered in recent years in Lake County. Murder cases against Jerry Hobbs and James Edwards and rape convictions against Bennie Starks and Angel Gonzalez also were overturned because of DNA evidence. Gonzalez, of Waukegan, was exonerated this month in a 1994 rape case for which he spent more than 20 years in prison.

Hobbs spent about five years in Lake County jail after he was charged with killing his 8-year-old daughter and her 9-year-old friend in a Zion park in 2005.

He confessed to police but later denied any involvement in the killings. He was freed in 2010 after DNA evidence cleared him, and another man now is charged in the crimes.

All five cases date back to Waller's 22-year tenure as state's attorney.

State's Attorney Michael Nerheim said his office must continue to uncover wrongful convictions of the past.

"It's the duty of prosecutors to seek justice, both before and after a conviction," he said.

Lawlor praised Nerheim for reopening the cases.

"I think Mike Nerheim is doing everything right and everything possible to ensure that we are changing the culture (in the state's attorney's office) to make sure this stops happening," Lawlor said.

Rivera, who now lives and works in Chicago, spoke of the other wrongful convictions during the news conference. He also said there are other people in prison for crimes they didn't commit.

The murder of Holly Staker has not been solved.

Rivera said he plans to use some of the $20 million to pay for his mother's medical bills.

He also wants to pay for his nieces' college educations and to go to college himself.

Juan Rivera timeline

Juan Rivera, center, who wrongfully served more than 19 years in prison for the 1992 rape and murder of an 11-year-old Waukegan girl, stands with attorneys Jon Loevy, left, and Locke Bowman, during a news conference Friday in Chicago. Attorneys for Rivera said they've settled a federal lawsuit against Lake County prosecutors and police for $20 million. Associated Press
  Juan Rivera was released from Stateville State Prison in January 2012 after an appellate court ruling threw out his 1992 conviction for rape and murder. On the left, is his nephew John Michael Diaz, on the right is mother Carmen Rivera and his sister Rebecca Leon. Bev Horne/
Holly Staker
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