Juan Rivera’s settlement after DNA exoneration in 1992 rape, murder thought to be state record.

By: Dan Hinkel & Steve Mills, Chicago Tribune: March 21st, 2015

Authorities have reached a $20 million settlement with a man who spent two decades in prison before he was cleared by DNA of the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in Waukegan, ending a controversial chapter for Lake County’s troubled justice system.

Lawyers for Juan Rivera said the agreement with the city of Waukegan and other governmental bodies marks the largest settlement for a wrongfully convicted person in Illinois.

”No amount of money could ever sum up to 20 years in prison;’ Rivera, who hopes to go to college to study business management, said Friday at the offices of the Loevy & Loevy law firm.

Flanked by his parents, Rivera, 42, said his time in maximum-security prisons left an indelible mark on him. “I live my life always looking behind my back,” he said.

Steve Art, one of Rivera’s attorneys, said the settlement should send a message that wrongful convictions come at a steep price.

“It demonstrates that there was serious alleged misconduct and that this case was very winnable for Mr. Rivera at trial;’ Art said ”It also shows taxpayers in Lake County that there’s a serious price to pay when police and other actors in the criminal justice system violate individual rights.”

The cost of the settlement will be split among the local towns that contributed police officers to the investigation by the Lake County Major Crime Task Force of Holly Staker’s 1992 rape and murder.

Waukegan’s share, $7.5 million, is the largest and reflects the key role its officers played in Rivera’s arrest. Waukegan Mayor Wayne Motley, who confirmed the settlement, said insurance will cover only part of its payout, meaning taxpayers may have to foot some of the bill.

Motley also lashed out at other municipalities in the case. Court documents, as well as a social media post from Motley, show that the county, the state and other municipal defendants agreed to settle the lawsuit before Waukegan, leaving the city out on a legal and financial limb.

“It was very inappropriate for them to do what they did. I was not happy,” the mayor said

As is common when authorities settle lawsuits, none of the defendants admitted wrongdoing. The law enforcement officers sued in the case are being dismissed as defendants and won’t have to pay damages.

Attorney James Sotos, who has represented Lake County, said the settlement made financial sense considering the risks to the county of an even heftier verdict. He said the county did not have insurance to cover its share and will have to pay the entire $3.5 million. “It was a good settlement given the costs and risks of litigation,” Sotos said.

While Rivera’s lawyers say his settlement ranks as the largest of its kind in state history, other former inmates have won larger amounts by taking their lawsuits to trial. A federal jury awarded $25 million to Thaddeus “T.J.” Jimenez, who was 13 when he was convicted of murder and spent approximately 16 years in prison before a key witness recanted and Jimenez was freed.

Rivera’s case is one of five Lake County murder or rape prosecutions that have imploded in the last five years under the weight of DNA evidence indicating prosecutors had put an innocent man behind bars. Just last week, State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim agreed to free Angel Gonzalez, who spent about 20 years in prison for a 1994 rape and abduction, after DNA cleared him of involvement.

The men, most of whom were prosecuted during the 22-year tenure of State’s Attorney Michael Waller, spent a combined 80 years in jail or prison before they were exonerated. During Waller’s service, his prosecutors developed an unflattering national reputation for going to great lengths to undermine DNA evidence that contradicted their conclusions. After Waller retired in 2012, Nerheim succeeded him and promised reform.

Exonerations are typically followed by lawsuits against authorities, and the city of Waukegan – whose detectives were responsible for much of the police work in the cases – has settled multiple claims.

Jerry Hobbs, who spent five years in jail awaiting trial in the deaths of his 8-year-old daughter and her 9-year-old friend in 2005, reaped a settlement of nearly $8 million from various authorities. Waukegan was responsible for $4 million, which an insurer paid, according to city records.

In 2006, Alejandro Dominguez won a $9 million verdict from Waukegan after he spent four years in prison for a 1989 rape that DNA ultimately showed he didn’t commit. Insurance covered the verdict, according to court records.

Other lawsuits filed by exonerated men against Lake County authorities are pending.

Rivera’s case remains beset by puzzling questions about the methods authorities employed in the months and years that followed the girl’s rape and murder in August 1992. With a settlement heading off a potential trial, those mysteries may endure.

The key piece of evidence was a confession Rivera gave after·an interrogation spanning four days, but that statement conflicted with an admission he’d given earlier that contained details that did not match the killing’s apparent facts.

Last year, the Tribune revealed that in 1994, police obtained a knife found steps from the crime scene. Rivera’s trial attorneys said they were never told about the knife, and there is no indication authorities ordered forensic tests before the knife was destroyed, according to court records and interviews. More recently, the Tribune reported that a federal judge had ordered testing on a gym shoe to try to determine if authorities had attempted to manufacture bogus evidence against Rivera.

The Tribune also reported last year that DNA from the unidentified man who sexually assaulted Holly matched genetic material found on a board that was used to beat Delwin Foxworth in North Chicago in 2000 before he was doused with gasoline and set on fire. Rivera’s lawyers argue the link between the killings suggests prosecutors allowed the real culprit to walk free and kill Foxworth. Lawyers for the man imprisoned for killing Foxworth, Marvin Williford, argue the DNA suggests their client is innocent.

Court reversals unraveled Rivera’s conviction repeatedly, and prosecutors tried him for the third time in 2009, even after DNA showed someone else had sexually assaulted Holly. Prosecutors at the time argued that the 11-year-old was sexually active, though people who’d been close to her disputed that.

Rivera walked free in 2012 after appeals judges reversed his conviction and took the rare step of barring prosecutors from trying him a fourth time.