Chicago Tribune

DNA tests give hope to convict in 1992 murder
By Maurice Possley; Chicago Tribune
March 26, 2005

DNA tests on evidence from the 1992 rape and murder of 11-year-old Holly Staker in Waukegan have excluded the man who authorities say confessed and is serving a life prison sentence for the crime, according to his lawyers.

Juan Rivera, 32, was notified of the test results by telephone Thursday night at Stateville Correctional Center. Rivera wept when he heard the news, said Jane Raley, a senior staff attorney at the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law.

"He had been calling me for the results," Raley said. "That alone told me he was innocent."

Raley said a motion for a new trial for Rivera based on the evidence would be filed next month. She said she hopes the motion will be granted and that Lake County prosecutors will drop the charges so that Rivera can be freed.

"The state's attorney's office has been very cooperative," Raley said. "They could have objected to my motion for testing, but they have not been obstructionists at all. And I am confident they will do the right thing."

The murder of Holly Staker, killed as she baby-sat a neighbor's two children, was one of Lake County's most notorious crimes. It sent spasms of fear through Waukegan because of its vicious nature and prompted many parents to rethink whether to allow their daughters to baby-sit.

Lake County authorities will be asked by defense lawyers to submit the unidentified genetic profile to the FBI's national DNA database. It contains profiles of 2.1 million convicted offenders as well as nearly 100,000 genetic profiles from evidence in unsolved cases.

Michael Mermel, a Lake County assistant state's attorney who is handling the case, said Friday that sending the profile to the database "should be done no matter what." Mermel declined further comment, saying he was waiting for a final review of Blake's work by the Illinois State Police crime lab.

If released, Rivera would be the 160th DNA exoneration in the nation and the 28th in Illinois. His lawyers say this shows the case to be yet another example of a false confession coerced from a person of lower intelligence as well as an example of the dangers of accepting testimony from a jailhouse snitch.

Rivera's parents, Juan Sr. and Carmen, said they were pleased to hear the test results. "We always believed he was innocent," his father said. "I have been waiting for the tests to come back."

On Aug. 17, 1992, Holly was baby-sitting a 5-year-old boy and his 2 1/2-year-old sister in an apartment three blocks from where she lived with her family, including her identical twin sister.

After eating pizza, the boy went out to play. At 8 p.m., when a neighbor noticed he was still outside, the boy said he was locked out.

The neighbor took the boy to his mother at her job at a nearby tavern. The mother, Dawn Engelbrecht, called her home but got no answer. Engelbrecht contacted Holly's mother, and the two of them went to the apartment, where they found the 2 1/2-year-old girl unharmed.

Stabbed 27 times

Holly was dead in a bedroom. She had been stabbed 27 times and was raped as she was dying, according to medical evidence presented at the trial.

In the days after the crime, Rivera was jailed on an unrelated burglary charge. Another inmate told authorities that Rivera told him he knew who had killed Holly. Police focused on Rivera, then just a few days short of his 20th birthday.

On Oct. 27, 1992, Rivera was taken to John E. Reid & Associates, Inc., in Chicago, a company that has refined interrogation techniques for more than 50 years. The company says that its techniques are "the most widely used approach to question subjects in the world."

Ultimately, Rivera signed two confessions to the crimes. He later testified at a pretrial hearing that he was coerced into confessing and had nothing to do with the crime.

Even before his trial began, the case took a controversial turn. Police reports filed in court said that a Waukegan gang member allegedly had bragged to several friends that he killed Holly during an LSD-induced fury because she denied him sex. The documents said the man told an informant three days after the murder that he had committed the crime.

Law enforcement sources said at the time that the man was 23 years old, knew Holly and lived on Waukegan's near north side, the same area where Holly was killed. According to sources at the time, police interviewed the man but said they found no reason to suspect him in the slaying.

Rivera was convicted the first time in 1993 largely on the basis of his alleged confession as well as another prison inmate who said Rivera had confessed to him while awaiting trial. Rivera was sentenced to life in prison.

That sentence and the conviction were set aside in 1996 by the Illinois Appellate Court, which ruled the judge in the case had made errors.

At Rivera's second trial, defense attorney Patrick Tuite told the jury that the alleged confession was patently unbelievable. He said it was as worthless as if someone had come to the FBI in 1963 and said he had killed President John Kennedy by "standing behind a tree with a bow and arrow."

Rivera was convicted at the 1998 retrial and given a life sentence by Lake County Circuit Judge Christopher Starck, who said the case was "of uncommon savagery and unspeakable brutality."

At the time of Rivera's second trial, state crime lab analysts said DNA tests were inconclusive. Since then, scientific testing procedures have improved.

The latest tests were performed by DNA expert Ed Blake at Forensic Science Associates in Richmond, Calif. Blake is renowned as one of the best at isolating DNA.

Blake's report, obtained by the Tribune, states that he was able to locate 400 sperm from the empty vial that contained at one time vaginal swabs taken from the victim as well as 20 sperm on a stick that was part of a swab.

Another man's DNA

From the sperm, Blake was able to find a genetic profile of a male that is different from Rivera's genetic profile.

Henry Lazzaro, one of Rivera's defense lawyers at trial, said Friday, "That is an outstanding piece of news. I've contended 12 1/2 years that Juan is innocent. Hopefully, this gets the job done, and the state's attorney's office will finally admit they made a mistake."

Now an administrative judge for the U.S. Department of Defense in Maryland, Lazzaro added, "He has wasted a whole bunch of years in jail for something he didn't do. I will be extremely thankful that this will work out for Juan to return to freedom."

Engelbrecht, whose children Holly was baby-sitting, had initially told police after Rivera was arrested that he had approached her outside her apartment on the night of the crime and asked, "What's happening?"

She later recanted that identification, however, and said she believed Rivera was not Holly's killer. On Friday, in an interview, Engelbrecht said, "I've gone through hell for believing it wasn't him. Thank goodness someone had the foresight to save the evidence."

She said her belief in Rivera's innocence was "going on a gut feeling and blind faith. Now, I feel relieved. When it's all said and done, you have to turn it over to God and go on faith."

Efforts to reach Holly's mother were unsuccessful.

UPDATE:  May 8, 2009 -  Juan was convicted of Holly Staker's rape and murder yet again, even though DNA excluded him.  Prosecutors cited Juan's confession, which Juan says was coerced, as proof of his guilt.  Rob Warden of the Center on Wrongful Convictions said:  "We are committed absolutely to Juan Rivera. We believe in his innocence and we are going to do everything we can to bring justice in this case."

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