Juan Rivera’s attorneys at Loevy & Loevy appreciate the New Yorker Magazine writing again about Mr. Rivera’s fight for justice after the Waukegan Police secured a false confession from him by using a highly problematic, coercive interrogation technique linked to numerous other false confessions around the country. In highlighting Mr. Rivera’s recent $20 million wrongful conviction settlement, the New Yorker continued its series questioning whether the interrogation technique used to secure Mr. Rivera’s false confession – a widely used technique that has been employed for decades by many police departments, as well as the F.B.I, the C.I.A. and the Secret Service – is inherently coercive and leads to false confessions.
The power of a confession cannot be underestimated. No matter what other evidence is presented at trial, a confession seems pretty damning: to a jury, wouldn’t it be compelling and persuasive when a suspect admits that he committed the crime? And yet false confessions happen far more often than you might think. Indeed, police induced false confessions are among the leading causes of wrongful convictions. False confession experts report that 20% of the 1,281 people exonerated from January 1989 through December 2013 had a false confession as a contributing factor.
For Mr. Rivera, his uphill battle to free himself from his false conviction began after he was wrongly convicted of the 1992 rape and murder of 11-year-old Holly Staker in Waukegan, Illinois. Mr. Rivera did not commit the crime: no physical evidence or eyewitness testimony implicated him; and electronic home monitoring records (along with other evidence) showed that he was at his family’s home at the time of the crime. Mr. Rivera’s prosecution and conviction, however, were based on a false confession that police officers wrote and that the 19 year old Rivera signed after facing four solid days of interrogation, with virtually no sleep.
Mr. Rivera was convicted of capital murder in 1993 and sentenced to life in prison. After his first conviction was reversed because of trial error, he was tried and convicted again in 1998. Thankfully, DNA technology eventually caught up with this case. In 2005, a DNA profile developed from semen found inside of Staker excluded Mr. Rivera as a suspect. The DNA evidence conclusively proved what the electronic monitoring records had shown all along: that it was someone else, not Rivera, who had committed the rape/murder. Mr. Rivera was again granted a new trial, but despite the new DNA evidence, Rivera was again convicted, again relying on the false confession. It was not until December 2011 that the Illinois Appellate Court finally held that the evidence was insufficient to convict Rivera and entered judgment of acquittal.
In reflecting on these interrelated tragedies – the horror of Holly Staker’s murder, the travesty of the State’s refusal to pursue the actual offender, and Mr. Rivera’s lost years in prison incarcerated for a crime he did not commit – it easy to wonder how someone falsely confesses to a rape and murder he did not commit. But the research shows that it happens, that police interrogation techniques are frequently coercive, and that suspects are often tricked into simply agreeing with their interrogators’ rendition of the crime.
What made Juan Rivera’s wrongful conviction all the more horrifying was the deceitful efforts police officers made to falsely substantiate the coerced false confession. Before trial, the prosecution trumpeted a slam-dunk piece of evidence: a pair of sneakers, supposedly belonging to Rivera, stained with Holly Staker’s blood. Oddly, the prosecution never introduced this seemingly pivotal piece of evidence at trial. The reason for this omission was eventually discovered, after the DNA exoneration: it turns out that the shoes were not actually sold in the U.S. until after the murder. This means that the blood was planted. Moreover, because the plant occurred before modern advances in DNA testing, the Staker blood sample planted on the shoe was inadvertently mixed with that of the person who raped her.
Coerced confessions run counter to our constitution and all notions of justice and fair play. Planted evidence to support a false, coerced confession is beyond appalling, indicative of a profoundly broken system. We applaud the New Yorker for sharing Mr. Rivera’s story.