Appellate Court Overturns Conviction in People v. Rivera

Juan Rivera has spent the past 19 years in prison as a convicted murderer of an 11-year-old girl based on a confession he signed after 36 hours of tag-team interrogations.

In 2004, DNA results excluded him as the source of the semen in the case. But the prosecution persisted and secured a new conviction against him, arguing (despite the lack of any evidence to support the claim) that the 11-year-old victim may have been sexually active and that the semen may have come from a consensual partner unassociated with the rape/murder.

On Friday evening, the Illinois Appellate Court ruled that no rational finder of fact could conclude that Mr. Rivera was guilty of the rape and murder of which he was convicted, and that he is entitled to release.  In it’s Opinion, the Court decried the nightmare of the “wrongful incarceration” Mr. Rivera suffered for the past 19 years, and the Court held that the only way to argue for conviction was through absurd claims that distorted the evidence. The Chicago Tribune and the New York Times have reports on the case and the Court’s decision. Two weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine published a lengthy feature article on the case.

A team of Stanford Law School students worked with me extensively in preparing the appeal on behalf of Juan Rivera. They are: Kathryn Blair, Davida Brook, Chad Clark, Kara Kapp, Aaron Kurman, Rachel Marshall, Sara Mayeux, Allegra McLeod, Anne Osburn, Zoe Palitz, Michelle Parris, Patricia Pei, Nick Xenakis, and Katie Young.  Lawyers from the Northwestern Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions and the Chicago office of Jenner & Block also participated in the appeal.

An e-mail I received this morning speaks to the nature of the students’ experience in the case. Not only did they get intense hands-on training, they had the benefit of seeing the power of the law. The student wrote, “What an amazing victory.  A life changed.  And not just Juan’s life!  At the risk of stating the obvious, I hope you know that the experience of helping in Juan’s case is one that I will treasure always, and that I am confident will inspire me, as well as the other student contributors, to take on many a seemingly impossible client or cause in the years to come.”