Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Reasonable doubt exists in Holly Staker slaying

The following editorial was published by the Chicago Tribune on December 14, 2011.

Juan Rivera has spent nearly two decades in prison for the 1992 sexual assault and stabbing murder of 11-year-old Holly Staker in Waukegan. He has been convicted three times by jury, largely because he confessed to the crime.

But three judges on the Illinois Appellate Court reached a stunning decision last week: No "rational trier of fact" could have concluded beyond a reasonable doubt that Rivera is guilty. The court reversed Rivera's conviction.

Lake County State's Attorney Michael Waller now must decide whether to drop the case, ask the appellate court to reconsider, or appeal its decision to the Illinois Supreme Court. A Supreme Court appeal would require the approval of Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

Three jury trials and three convictions can't be discarded lightly. The appellate court, though, was unanimous and emphatic. It said DNA evidence in the case "does not completely exonerate" Rivera, but it "significantly impeaches" the prosecutors' case.

•No DNA evidence tied Rivera to the crime. The evidence showed that semen in Holly Staker's body wasn't from Rivera.

•No physical evidence tied Rivera to the crime. Fingerprints at the scene weren't his. Blood found at the scene wasn't his.

•At the time of the crime, Rivera was on electronic monitoring for a parole violation in another crime. The monitoring device did not indicate that Rivera left his home on the night of the crime. (Though as we wrote at the time, Lake County's electronic monitoring program was notoriously unreliable.)

The appellate court scolded Lake County prosecutors for offering a "highly improbable" explanation of the crime, which distorted "to an absurd degree" the testimony from witnesses.

Then there is Rivera's confession. People ask: If he was innocent, why did he confess?

We've seen many troubling cases where people confess to crimes they didn't commit, oftentimes when they are coerced.

The Tribune reported last year that researchers believe false confessions lead to about 25 percent of wrongful convictions. "Some people confess from fatigue, stress, and being worn down through relentless questioning and sleep deprivation; some people confess out of fear; some people confess with the expectation of future exoneration; some people confess due to coercive or suggestive methods of interrogations," the appellate court wrote.

In this case, the court found, veteran officers used leading questions and likely fed details about the crime to Rivera. The court said detectives psychologically manipulated Rivera, who has an IQ of 79 and reads at a third-grade level. Rivera was banging his head against a wall and pulling his hair out at one point during a police interrogation. He signed confession statements after a long interrogation over several days.

The DNA evidence proves that someone else sexually assaulted Holly Staker. The prosecution's theory about her murder doesn't hold up.

Reviewing courts do not blithely overturn the decisions of juries. These appellate judges have done a careful and thorough analysis and reached an unambiguous decision.

State's Attorney Waller should accept that decision and move to free Rivera. He should not appeal. If he pursues that course, he should move to let Rivera be freed while an appeal is considered. It seems extremely unlikely that Waller will prevail in the Supreme Court.

Lake County does have a case to pursue. Someone did grievous harm to an 11-year-old girl. Someone who has not been identified.

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