Juan Rivera free after 20 years behind bars

Waukegan

"All I wanna do is enjoy my time with my family, it's been 20 years,” Juan Rivera said Friday, after he was released from prison, “this is a new beginning for me as well as for every one of us."

Rivera had been convicted of a horrific crime.  August 17, 1992.  The body of 11-year old Holly Staker was found inside a Waukegan apartment.  She had been raped and stabbed 27 times.  Juan Rivera-- then 20 years old-- was found guilty. 

Over the years, he and his family maintained his innocence-- but failed to overturn the

Conviction-- even after 2005, when DNA taken from the little girl's body did not match Juan Rivera. 

Finally today, the Lake County State's Attorney announced the state will not appeal last month's appellate court ruling to overturn the conviction.  That and an emergency order gave the green light for his immediate release.

"I have a beautiful family that has believed in me, 20 years of my life, and I'm thankful that they never had doubts," Rivera said.

There were tears, smiles and hugs from about a dozen family members who were waiting for him outside. 

Rebecca Leon, Juan Rivera's sister said “he was my role model, they took him away from me, I have him back"

Miguel Rivera, Juan's Brother said now "we can walk together, we can do things together"

A few hours later-- another warm welcome at the Northwestern University Law School, home to the Center on Wrongful Convictions, which filed for his immediate release. 

Champagne and pizza-- Rivera's first meal as a free man.  His wife, Melissa, who married him while he was in prison, says they both want to see the case re-opened.

“I'm elated, I’m happy, I just wanna see a conclusion to this case," Melissa Sanders-Rivera said.

Rivera says he's not bitter or angry for the time he has served; he says he just wants to focus on the future.  “No, there's no hard feelings, but Lake County-- they convicted me wrongfully and they knew it was wrong, and that has to be corrected."

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