Just a few blocks from Loyola’s Lake Shore campus in Rogers Park, a man named Juan Rivera lives in an ordinary-looking house with his family. But he’s far from ordinary. Rivera spent more than two decades in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and later won more than $20 million in one of the largest wrongful conviction settlements in United States history.
At age 19, Rivera was accused of the brutal rape and murder of 11-year-old Holly Staker, who was found dead on Aug. 27, 1992, after babysitting for two young neighbors in Waukegan.
The crime shook the northern suburb. Police tried frantically to find her killer, but the trail went cold until an informant pointed investigators toward Rivera, who they said had been near the scene of the crime the night Staker was murdered.
Rivera maintained his innocence. But after four days of interrogation by investigators who used a controversial interview method called the Reid technique and administered two polygraph tests, Rivera broke down.
In what was later deemed a psychotic episode by a psychiatric nurse who examined him, jail officials saw Rivera banging his head against the wall of his cell as investigators typed a graphic confession for him to sign. He signed it and was sentenced to life in prison.
But he was innocent, a judge later ruled.
Rivera spent more than 20 years in prison and was retried twice due to prosecutorial errors but remained incarcerated each time. On Dec. 9, 2011 — nearly 9,000 days after he was first locked up — DNA evidence in Rivera’s third appeal of his conviction proved he wasn’t the killer, and the Illinois Appellate Court ruled his conviction was unjustified and his charges were dismissed.
Police never officially acknowledged any wrongdoing in prosecuting Rivera even after DNA evidence showed he couldn’t have been the killer. Prosecutors dropped the case after the judge in Rivera’s final appeal said they distorted evidence “to an absurd degree.”
Three years after his release in 2012, officials in Lake County, where Rivera was interrogated, settled a wrongful conviction suit he filed against them. Rivera won $20 million — $1 million for every year he spent in prison and the largest wrongful conviction settlement in Illinois history.
“It was bad apples, you know, we proved that in court,” Rivera, now 45, said of the officers who he said framed him. “That’s the reason I won my civil suit without even going to trial. But it also falls on the court system, the legal system, because they just go based upon whatever [police] say.”
But Rivera wasn’t bitter. All those years in prison left him eager to rejoin society and make up for lost time.
“I decided that when I get back out here, I want to, as I say, ‘tackle this earth,’” Rivera said. “I wanted to be somewhat prepared.”
Diane Geraghty is a law professor at Loyola, her husband Tom worked on Rivera’s case at Northwestern University’s MacArthur Justice center. The adjustment back to life out of prison can be hard for exonerees, according to Geraghty.
“It’s one thing to be exonerated and another thing to have missed out on your life…putting the pieces back together is not so easy,” Geraghty said. “[Exonerees] want to rebuild their own lives and also have a very strong sense of justice, given the injustice they’ve experienced.”
When he was finally set free, Rivera was surprised at the pace of life in the outside world. Locked up at a time when the World Wide Web was barely more than science fiction, Rivera suddenly found himself in a world of smartphones and social media.
He nearly got carried away during his early days as a free man.
“Never owning a car, you know, and having a poor man’s sports car, which is a Hyundai Genesis, here I am on Lake Shore Drive and I just gunned it,” Rivera said. “And I get pulled over. The cop could have been a jerk and could have impounded my car, took me to jail.”
But he didn’t. The officer recognized Rivera from the news and cut him some slack, telling Rivera he understood why he was so excited to be on the road.
“He chose to give me a break, like, ‘You just got your license, just got out, what are you doing?’ You know, so it just showed me that not everybody is against me,” Rivera said.
Now better adjusted to life beyond the prison walls, Rivera lives with his new fiancee and two young children in their modest Rogers Park home. He’s lived there for four years, and said the quiet neighborhood lets him live free from unwanted attention.
“I don’t care about the money, honestly,” Rivera said. “I live on a budget. I have a financial adviser, a financial planner, I have a budget per month. I cannot go over it. If I go over it I’m broke, even though I’ve got money.”
Instead of blowing the money on all the things he couldn’t afford before prison, Rivera opened a barber school in south suburban Glenwood, where he teaches low-income high school students how to cut hair. The first class of students is set to graduate this year.
“[The day the school opened] was normal to me,” Rivera said. “I wasn’t as excited as people usually get, because it’s not about popularity, it’s just about how I can help. We haven’t even done a grand opening or anything for it. We quietly opened up, people walk in, get haircuts, we teach them and that’s all it’s about. It isn’t about bringing attention.”
Locke Bowman is the executive director of the MacArthur Justice Center and worked on the team that won Rivera’s settlement. Rivera’s attitude towards helping the community is “terrific” but not something all exonerees feel, according to Bowman.
“[Rivera] is a lovely man and I know he has a great personal concern for the plight of other people struggling with the adjustment that occurs after years in prison, followed by an exoneration,” Bowman said. “I know that he has a great concern for the struggles of people that are still incarcerated and are attempting to establish their innocence. I think [Rivera’s] actions in this regard have been exemplary.”
Before he was convicted for the murder, Rivera described himself as a rough-around-the-edges 19-year-old who hung with the wrong crowd; he was on house arrest for stealing a car radio before he was fingered as Staker’s killer, and said he was an easy target for fearful residents looking for someone to blame for the horrific crime. He now hopes to use the lessons he learned to keep his students from following a similar path.
He tries to show his young students barbering is a better option than riskier things such as selling drugs.
“I tell them, ‘You know what, let’s compare,’” Rivera said. “You sell a $20 bag on the streets. You’re going to be out there in the cold, you’ve gotta worry about the person you’re getting the product from — that you don’t short-change them — cops, getting robbed, maybe shooting somebody, stabbing somebody. These are all the consequences of making $20. Compared to standing in front of a chair [and] having your friend sit down, you get 20 bucks for the same thing that you’re doing out there: chilling with your boys.”
While his raucous ways didn’t directly land him in prison, Rivera said he would’ve never been in a position to be blamed for the murder if he had been on a better path as a kid.
“It would have been a lot different,” Rivera said. “I mean, back when I was younger, I used to always break down VCRs when they had VCRs and take them apart and put them back together. I used to do artwork, which I still do today, but nobody cared … if I had that one mentor individual that would have just taken my interest, I think I would have been doing something different with life.”
If Rivera learned nothing else from his 20 years in what he calls a “hellhole” at the maximum security Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet, it’s resilience. He tries to teach his new students persistence in the face of what often seems like insurmountable difficulty.
“I explain to them ‘hey, Rome wasn’t built overnight,’” Rivera said. “‘It took years. That’s why you have school.’”
When a student feels inadequate or ashamed of struggling to master a technique, Rivera reminds them that if he can survive two decades in a maximum security prison where he was stabbed twice, they can do anything.
“Just keep going, don’t let that stop you because if that’s the case then I should have still been in prison not here with you, because I would have given up a long time ago,” Rivera said he often tells his students.
Rivera said he finds purpose in giving back to kids like him — low-income, potentially at-risk teens who don’t have as many opportunities to improve their circumstances. But he makes the reason for his altruism clear.
“I don’t owe anything to anyone; I do it because I enjoy it,” Rivera said. “It isn’t about how people judge me, how people look at me. I really don’t care. What more can they do to me to make me feel worse than I did for 20 years? I get to choose my life now, I get to choose my history.”
After being released from prison and finding himself unprepared to integrate back into society, Rivera decided to use his newfound riches to help other exonerees adjust to life outside the prison walls. Along with another high-profile exoneree, Christine Bunch, who wrongfully served 17 years in Indiana for allegedly killing her own son, Rivera started a nonprofit called Justis4Justus, which provides resources to exonerees such as housing assistance identification and government identification and tries to educate people about the issues they face.
“Every person that goes to prison, they always say that they have a gap in their life because they lost years,” Rivera said. “While they were incarcerated it’s like life stops, when they come back it’s like it continues but you missed.”
Rivera said he and other exonerees experience trauma similar to that of soldiers returning from war but don’t receive the same recognition that veterans do.
“Here we are, being put in a warzone without consent, without training and we’ve got to survive,” Rivera said. “So you expect us to go into the lion’s den, become aggressive, untrustworthy, manipulative to survive. And you want us to come out here and be civil, be okay? How? We have no help.”
Geraghty has knowledge of exonerees through her husband’s work and according to her understands that exonerees have different coping mechanisms after leaving prison.
“Different people have different needs and capacities. What [exonerees] have undergone is a very traumatic experience and I’m sure that all of them experience it differently,” Geraghty said. “Some just anger, some find it very hard to reintegrate, if you’ve never seen a cell phone before for example. Others really want to work on behalf of people who find themselves in that same situation.”
With the barber college and nonprofit now well underway, Rivera’s finding other ways to write his own history. He’s currently in the process of adopting his fiancee’s son and wants to create a life his children can be proud of.
“My daughter’s too young, she doesn’t know everything,” Rivera said. “My son, you know, he’s at the age where he understands and he knows, so I try to do my best to explain to him. I’m not trying to hide anything from him. I want him to talk with pride the way I talk about him. I talk about him with pride, so I want him to do the same with this.”