4 people wrongly convicted share stories of survival

  • Juan Rivera speaks during the Kane County public defender's office workshop Friday in Geneva, during which participants examined four wrongful convictions. Rivera spent 20 years in prison for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl that he did not commit.

      Juan Rivera speaks during the Kane County public defender's office workshop Friday in Geneva, during which participants examined four wrongful convictions. Rivera spent 20 years in prison for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl that he did not commit. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Mario Casciaro spoke at the Kane County public defender's office workshop Friday in Geneva, during which participants examined four wrongful convictions. An appellate court reversed Casciaro's murder by intimidation conviction in September. He was accused in the 2002 murder of a Johnsburg teen.

      Mario Casciaro spoke at the Kane County public defender's office workshop Friday in Geneva, during which participants examined four wrongful convictions. An appellate court reversed Casciaro's murder by intimidation conviction in September. He was accused in the 2002 murder of a Johnsburg teen. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Kristine Bunch got emotional while speaking during the Kane County public defender's office workshop on wrongful convictions Friday in Geneva. She spent 17 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of arson and murder in the fire that killed her 3-year-old son.

      Kristine Bunch got emotional while speaking during the Kane County public defender's office workshop on wrongful convictions Friday in Geneva. She spent 17 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of arson and murder in the fire that killed her 3-year-old son. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Juan Rivera speaks Friday at a workshop hosted by the Kane County public defender's office on wrongful convictions.

      Juan Rivera speaks Friday at a workshop hosted by the Kane County public defender's office on wrongful convictions. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Juan Rivera laughs while talking with Kristine Bunch, left, and Kane County Assistant Public Defender Kim Bilbrey during a break at a workshop Friday in Geneva to examine four wrongful convictions. Rivera and Bunch both were wrongfully convicted of crimes.

      Juan Rivera laughs while talking with Kristine Bunch, left, and Kane County Assistant Public Defender Kim Bilbrey during a break at a workshop Friday in Geneva to examine four wrongful convictions. Rivera and Bunch both were wrongfully convicted of crimes. Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 

Better police training, less immunity granted to witnesses, more prosecutor accountability and a larger pool of resources for the public defenders can help toward avoiding and preventing convictions of innocent people.

These were some suggestions offered Friday during an emotional seminar in Geneva that featured four people who were convicted of murders they did not commit.

"Just because a person was arrested for questioning doesn't make that person guilty," said Juan Rivera, who was released from prison four years ago after serving nearly two decades for the 1992 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in Lake County.

Rivera, who was just 19 when he was interrogated for 26 hours before giving a false confession, said he had to fight for his food in prison, had people try to rape him three times and quickly learned how to make weapons to defend himself.

"What can you do?" Rivera said. "You have to survive. You have to become an animal."

Rivera said he is not bitter about what happened but disappointed in the system.

"Wrong time, wrong place, wrong person -- that's all it takes," Rivera said. "Are they looking for (the killer?) Absolutely not because (Lake) County still believes I'm guilty."

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Mario Casciaro, whose conviction in a December 2002 murder of a Johnsburg teen was overturned this fall, said he wants to pursue a career in criminal law and work on reforms at the state level.

Casciaro was convicted of murder after two trials in which prosecutors offered blanket immunity to a repeat felon.

He wants more accountability for prosecutors and believes he was made a scapegoat by McHenry County State's Attorney Lou Bianchi, who was facing his own misconduct charges and needed to deflect negative media attention.

"I feel like the state kept pushing because they had unlimited funds," Casciaro said, adding he lost 40 pounds in prison. "There's no repercussions for a law enforcement. There's no repercussions for police. In law enforcement, it gets swept under the rug."

Bianchi's office has appealed Casciaro's case to the state's Supreme Court; officials will learn in mid-December if the high court will hear it.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Two others proven innocent also shared their stories.

Jacques Rivera spent 21 years in prison after being misidentified by a 12-year-old boy at trial in the slaying of a man on Chicago's west side in 1988.

More than two decades later, attorneys from Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions tracked down the witness, who recanted his testimony.

Jacques Rivera said he actually knew Juan Rivera when they were incarcerated.

"To be out here with (Juan), it's amazing," Jacques Rivera said. "We encouraged each other to stay strong."

Before her release, Kristine Bunch served more than 17 years of a 60-year sentence for arson and the murder of her 3-year-old son in June 1995 after her trailer burned down in Decatur County, Indiana.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Bunch said she wants more resources provided to public defenders to handle complex, scientific cases.

"The biggest heartache was my public defender didn't have the funds, didn't have the support he needed to take a case like mine," Bunch said. "If they had the help they needed, they could stop people before they're wrongly convicted. The hardest part is feeling that no one hears you when you say you're innocent."

The seminar was presented by the Kane County public defender's office and sponsored by the law firms of: Foote, Mielke, Chavez and O'Neil; Konicek & Dillon; and Meyers & Flowers.

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