1.5 Juan Rivera Pt. 2

In episode 5 we wrap up the case of Juan Rivera, we follow him through his final days in lock up and get to hear his feelings about being tried on three separate occasions for the rape and murder of an 11 year old girl.  If you enjoyed this episode please visit our website bowtofate.com to stay up to date with current events and episodes

Show Script: 

Hello and thanks for listening to Bow to Fate- a podcast focusing on true crime with an emphasis on the flaws in our justice system.  Today we are finishing up with the Juan Rivera case. If you haven’t listened to our last episode please stop listening and back up and listen to part one so you won’t be lost.  

Last time we left off with the Illinois Appellate Court denying Rivera’s request for a new trial after his second conviction in the rape and murder of 11 year old Holly Staker.  They affirmed the conviction of a jury based on testimony of the young girl who Holly was babysitting that day, she was two at the time and right after the trial she recanted her entire testimony and a false confession elicited by police after four days of intense interrogation.  

December of 2001 was a dark time for Juan Rivera.  It would be another two and a half years before new information would shed a brand new light on the case and offer Juan Rivera a renewed sense of hope.  Rivera’s attorney’s had been requesting DNA testing on the evidence found on and around Holly Staker since the first conviction.  

On October 30, 2004, President George Bush signed the Justice for All Act, which significantly enhanced funds for the use of DNA testing in the judicial process.  Among a slew of other things, the Act further strengthened the rights for convicted felons to obtain post-conviction testing if they assert their innocence and the DNA could produce new evidence in support of their innocence, and the DNA testing would or could create a reasonable probability that the applicant did not commit the offense.  

The power of DNA as a tool to convict or exonerate suspects is supported by the legal review and quality assurance guidelines that have been developed over the course of twenty years.  It is the most robust and authoritative tool we use today in the criminal justice system.

The Justice for All Act cleared the way for Juan Rivera and his attorneys to obtain the DNA evidence collected from the Holly Staker murder.  On May 24, 2005 DNA evidence taken from Holly Staker’s rape kit definitely excluded Juan Rivera as the source of semen recovered from Holly Staker.  

Judge Christopher Starck had no choice but to vacate the conviction and ordered a new trial.   No one believed that Lake County would elect to try this case again. What everyone forgot though was that Lake County was notorious for retrying cases even when they knew the defendant had been cleared by new evidence.  Assistant State Attorney Michael Mermel said this in an interview with Andy Martin a New York Time’s reporter.

We don’t fold our tents and run because someone holds up three letters, DNA.  What he is essentially saying there is that he loves science, in other words he understands it and therefore is able to manipulate its true meaning to the common folk. 

Mermel assisted in Rivera’s first and second trial, but in number three he would take center stage.  Mermel had some big hurdles to overcome if he wanted to keep Rivera in prison. Not only had DNA evidence excluded Rivera as Holly Staker’s rapist.  In the Englebrecht home, other blood evidence was finally tested as well. They found blood from Holly everywhere but in the bedroom where the crime was focused they found blood from an unidentified male suspect, the blood found also matched the DNA found on the vaginal swab taken from Holly Staker.  We mentioned in the last episode, none of the fingerprints found in the home matched Rivera, there was not a single piece of physical evidence that matched Juan Rivera anywhere near the crime scene. Mermel knew in order to win, he was going to need to get creative….and boy did that bastard ever.  

On April 19, 2009 Rivera entered the courtroom for the third time once again charged with the brutal rape and murder of Holly Staker.  

So what on earth prompted Lake County’s State Attorney, Michael Waller, to allow Mermel to try this case again against a man that they had no evidence against aside from a confession that even the men themselves had to know what a complete fabrication, after all Waller read the first testimony and subsequently ordered a fresh set of detectives to clean it up to make it match the facts of the crime.  

Part of me thinks they are just pretentious bastards so full of themselves that they are incapable of admitting they make mistakes.  Unfortunately, our country is full of cases of wrongful conviction where prosecutors continuously charge them again and again until they reach the point that showing their faces in public would result in an old fashioned ass whooping.  I can’t believe all these prosecutors are just assholes looking to crush the little guy. Legal scholars reviewing the issue make the supposition that prosecutors are faced with concerns about their political futures and a culture that values winning over justice that they are given no choice but to protect their convictions or lose their jobs.  We have discussed the issue before on previous episodes. Prosecutors are pushed to so hard to win that they begin to forget their actual job and loyalties should lie with finding justice.  

I guess some prosecutors could actually believe that the defendants  committed the crime, but I bet those instances are far outnumbered by Prosecutors that are more interested in protecting their win than actually fighting for justice.  The competitive atmosphere in a prosecutor’s office is definitely a negative force within our justice system, and tie that with the fact that the only way to move your career along is to make sure that more cases fall in the win column than the lose, it creates a climate that cares little if at all for actual justice.  

With the trial underway, and with no physical evidence tying Rivera to the crime.  Many people believed Rivera was soon to be set free, DNA showed that he did not have sex with Holly and his confession contained pieces that many people soon started to see were factually exclusive.  Each time Rivera gave information during his confession, that was not known already by the investigators it turned out to be false. They were unable to corroborate any new details given by Rivera during that fated second confession.  That would not stop Mermel from moving forward though.  

The first and ever important step for Mermel would be to overcome the DNA evidence.  He needed to prove that just because the DNA inside Holly Staker did not match Juan Rivera did not mean that he did not he didn’t rape and murder Holly Staker.  

Mermel presented two different theories in an attempt to discount the DNA evidence found.  

For my own sake I’m going to begin with the less disgusting theory.  Mermel presented to the jury the possibility that the lab testing the DNA had actually contaminated the sample.  Mermel stood in front of a jury and speculated that no sperm was actually recovered from the autopsy of Holly Staker, he assumed that the sperm actually got on the swab sometime after the autopsy and before the testing.  Mermel actually argued this in court in several other cases trying to account for DNA that shouldn’t be there. He loved to use the motel remote control scenario, saying that if you touch a remote control in a motel room you can successfully spread some else’s sperm to your mouth, face, eyes, and if you wipe your ass well after touching a remote in a motel room you have just contaminated both your vagina and ass with unknown sperm.  I wish I was kidding but he actually put this argument before a jury.  

Apparently we are all just walking cesspools spreading male sperm all willy nilly all over the world with every handshake and hug.  

Mermel’s second theory was much more disturbing and in order to pull it off he needed the help of Holly’s identical twin Heather Staker. 

Despite DNA eliminating Rivera from the scene the Staker family continued to believe he is guilty due to the prompting and insistence of the prosecutor’s office.   Here is Heather Staker in her own words

 As if Lake County hadn’t put this family through enough they now need Heather to take the stand to legitimize what has to be the most disgusting attempt to counter DNA evidence ever used.  Mermel suggested to the jury that 11 year old Holly had consensual sex with an unknown lover prior to Rivera breaking into the home and raping and murdering her. To prove this theory they placed Heather Staker on the stand and had her tell the jury about her and Holly being molested when they were 8 years old, but wait it doesn’t stop there he had Heather tell the jury about a time when she saw Holly materbating and then he topped the whole thing off by having her give extensive testimony about a pair of red lace panties Holly owned.  Remember she believes a shadow of a doubt that Juan Rivera murdered her sister, if I was in this situation I am sure I would do or say anything to keep my sister’s killer in jail.  

The argument was so troublesome that the defense actually had to argue that it violated the rape shield law.  Usually used by prosecutors to limit the argument that the victim is quote that type of person who is more likely to engage in sexual activity.  Mermel’s showing called for the defense to actually use the law against a prosecutor.  

Mermel’s arguments were possibly the most repugnant statements I have ever read in trial transcripts.  His suggestions were not only improbable but also irresponsible.  

Mermel went on to tell the jury that Rivera failed his polygraph test, when the defense tried to tell the jury that was not accurate Judge Christopher Starck stopped them from doing so, making a ruling to preclude the actual results.   Judge Starck didn’t stop there either, he denied expert testimony regarding false confessions and Rivera’s mental state during the interrogation. He would not allow the defense to show that Rivera had a low IQ or that he had a propensity for mental illness.  

Since the first trial conviction was thrown out because Starck would not allow this same information he had to know that his rulings were setting the grounds for an appeal.  In reality, Judge Starck probably didn’t care, he presided over all three trials against Rivera, the defense tried to request a new judge based on bias, but since Starck was the one getting to make that ruling it was subsequently denied.  

Can we just take a moment and talk about how ridiculous it is that the same judge gets to preside over trials where a conviction is overturned on appeal.  Why is this a thing??? Does it not seem more prudent that if a conviction is overturned because the appellate court finds errors perpetrated by the previous judge that the judge in question be replaced.  Not to mention that this is the third time Judge Starck is hearing the same case, and he gets more and more prickly as time goes by. No one likes to be told they didn’t do their job right and doing so probably would put a meteor size chip on the shoulder of an already questionable judge.  

Despite the ridiculousness of this trial and the fact that not only was there no physical evidence tying Rivera to the murder, but the evidence actually pointed to another perpetrator.  On May 8, 2009 the jury once again found Juan Rivera guilty for the third time for the rape and murder of Holly Staker. Here is Mike Mermel again in that taped interview with the New York Times 

I cannot believe this but Judge Starck once again sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.  

Let’s listen Juan talking about his 3rd conviction.  

The frustrating this about this case is that despite the undeniable evidence of his innocence, a prosecutor can be  so skilled at showmanship that they are able to convince a jury to completely ignore tangible real facts and focus on fabrications and fantasies created in the mind of a prosecutor with no evidence to back it up.  

An appeal was imminent and this time it would be led by a Stanford Law Professor named Lawrence Marshall.  Marshall was also the co-founder of the Center on Wrongful Convictions. Marshall presented a case before the Appellate court highlighting all the concerns of the trial held in 2009.  He showed the court that that evidence presented by the prosecution was insufficient to prove any guilt let alone beyond a reasonable doubt that Juan Rivera was the perpetrator of this heinous act.  

Marshall argued before the court that the confessions should have been supress because the were obviously coerced and presented a multitude of evidence to prove that fact.  He also presented evidence that Judge Starck had violated Rivera’s rights by denying him the opportunity to present any sort of viable defense.  

On December 9, 2011 in a landmark ruling the Illinois Appellate Court ruled that the conviction was quote unjustified and cannot stand.  They subsequently barred Lake County from prosecuting Juan Rivera again in this crime. Michael Waller, in true pompous ass form, later said that he would not appeal the court’s ruling stating Today, I believe the right thing to do is to bring a conclusion in the case against Rivera by electing not to appeal the reversal of his conviction.  

In January 2012 Juan Rivera got to breathe in his first breath of fresh air in more than 20 years.  

Shortly after his release Rivera’s attorneys petitioned the court to have the blood evidence found on his tennis shoes tested.  The prosecution had touted the Voit tennis shoes as undeniable evidence of Rivera’s guilt before the first trial in 1993, however after Rivera’s attorneys investigated the shoes they found that they had been purchased until after Holly’s murder.  There was no conceivable way Holly’s blood could have been on those shoes unless investigator maliciously placed it there in an attempt to manufacture bogus evidence against Rivera.  

Lake County fought vigorously against further testing of the shoes saying that doing so could hinder the ongoing investigation into Holly’s murder.  Their arguments were finally squashed by a federal judge and the testing commenced by an independent lab. What they found effectively proved tampering.  They not only concluded that the blood was Holly’s but they also found DNA from the unknown suspect identified by Holly’s rape kit.  

Lake County officials had developed a sudden case of amnesia regarding the shoes.  No one could remember how they were brought in, or make any sort of cohesive explanation for how the blood and DNA could  have possibly gotten on the shoes that were not even for sale when Holly was killed.  

We know that Lake County obtained the shoes a few weeks after his arrest.  Rivera traded them for a television and $20 dollars to another inmate named David Howard.  Howard then turned the tennis shoes over to investigators, if you are thinking that maybe Howard had anything to do with this don’t bother he was in prison at the time of the murder.    

The shoes weren’t the only problem for Lake County though.  Play Roanoke Clip 

Rivera had just been convicted for the first time and an appeal was pending however his defense attorneys were not informed of the discovery.  Before the knife could be tested Lake County destroyed the knife supposedly without ever having ran a test on the potential murder weapon.  

The serrated knife did not align with the story the prosecution wanted to present to the jury.  Prior to obtaining the confession from Rivera investigators found a long smooth kitchen knife in the front yard broken in two.  The had surmised that this was in fact the murder weapon and during the fated confession investigators pushed Rivera into confirming that he broke the knife in half before fleeing the scene.  Even though the medical examiner had stated that the injuries Holly Staker sustained most likely were the result of a serrated blade, investigators destroyed the knife before it would be tested.  

With an investigation so clouded with irregularities and inconsistencies the revelation of the knife should not have surprised anyone.  I continue to try to put myself in the place of investigators or whomever made the decisions in this case to effectively railroad Juan Rivera for the murder of Holly Staker.  I can’t figure out why they would work so hard to make sure all the evidence was stacked against him unless the mastermind of this farce was the person who actually committed the crime.  I honestly cannot come up with another explanation as to why someone would plant false evidence and then subsequently handed a piece of potentially real evidence that could point to an actual suspect ordered it destroyed before any testing can happen.  

Juan Rivera’s attorneys filed a civil suit against Lake County and every department that participated in his conviction.  After reviewing the evidence that could be presented against them. The collective agencies decided to settle the case. Juan Rivera walked out of court with twenty million dollars.  At the time it was the largest settlement paid for a wrongful conviction.  

Here is a press conference with Rivera and his attorney after winning the suit

Rivera said that he planned to use the money to pay of his mother’s medical bills and to send each of his niece’s to college.  

Lake County is now considered a hotbed of wrongful convictions.  During State Attorney, Michael Waller’s last year in office four cases were overturned on the basis of wrongful conviction, in three of those four cases the culprit confessed to the crime after grueling interrogations.  These men served a collective sentence of over 60 years in prison. Waller created an environment where bending the rules to make an arrest and get a conviction was acceptable. The resulting destruction has shined a light on the county they would rather not have.  

One of these convictions is still going to through the court system but it has very strong ties to the Holly Staker case.  

Following DNA testing on the evidence taken from the Staker murder, a match was found from evidence in the nearby murder of a Chicago man. 

 In January of 2000, three men entered the home of Delwin Foxworth.  They tied Delwin to a chair beat him with a 2×4 to obtain information about valuables in the home.  After collecting everything. They men doused Delwin in gasoline and lit him on fire before leaving the scene.  His girlfriend was hiding in a nearby bedroom. After the men left she assisted Delwin in putting out the blaze and called 911 for help.  Dewin Foxworth survived the fire and lived for two years in a nursing home until succumbing to his injuries.  

Delwin’s girlfriend who witnessed the incident in a slot through a closed door was shown the photo of Marvin Tyrone Willford before being asked to identify the men who broke into her apartment that night and assaulted her boyfriend.  She identified Willford in two separate lineups over a two year span.  

The girlfriend described Willford as the ringleader of the group, the sole brander of the 2×4 and the man that lit the match that set her boyfriend on fire.  Willford was convicted based primarily on her testimony.  

Marvin Williford managed to evade police for quite some time before being located after a simple traffic stop.  He was convicted of the murder of Delwin Foxworth and sentenced to 80 years in prison.  

When Juan Rivera’s attorneys asked for the DNA found on Holly Staker to be tested it was a match for the DNA found on the 2×4 that was used to beat Delwin Foxworth.  That DNA profile was not a match for either Juan Rivera or Marvin Williford leaving some to believe that two men were placed in jail for separate crimes that neither committed, however the same person who committed both still remains at large.  

Willford’s conviction relied heavily on eyewitness testimony.  Experts have testified that eyewitness testimony can be unreliable especially during high stress events.  Witnesses tend to focus on the weapons rather than the actual perpetrators. In this case right before the ID, investigators showed Foxworth’s girlfriend a picture of Willford.  Right after witnessing such an awful event we are more prone to misidentification. Our brains can play funny tricks on us. Investigators should be aware of this and careful not to potentially contaminate or otherwise skew the memories of eyewitnesses.  

Wilfords case is headed for a new trial, hoping the DNA evidence will help to prove that he was not part in the death of Delwin Foxworth.  If his conviction is overturned though we must face the reality that if investigators would have found the man who really murdered Holly Staker in 1992 then Delwin Foxworth might still be alive today.  The crimes were vicious atrocities. An 11 year old girl raped and stabbed 27 times and a man doused with gasoline and lit afire. This suspect is brutal and savage not to mention still on the loose today.  So far no known suspect has matched the DNA profile found at both crime scenes meaning he is not in our criminal justice system, he is either dead or walking the streets of Lake County potentially looking for his next victim.  

Lake County, Illinois faced other such cases wrongful conviction under the leadership of Michael Waller.  No one case damaged their reputation as badly as the case of Jerry Hobbs however.  

Hobb’s was no saint, he found himself in Lake County after serving two years in a Texas prison for chasing off a man flirting with his girlfriend with a chainsaw.  After his release, he moved to Lake County to rekindle his relationship with the mother of his children and start to rebuild his life.  

Just a few short weeks after his arrival though his daughter Laura went outside to play with a friend Krystal Tobias, who was nine years old.  When the girls didn’t come back that night, Hobbs became angry and went in search of them. What he found would be a picture burned into his mind forever.  

At 6am the next morning while searching the woods with police and other family member he happened on the girls’ bodies lying on their backs with multiple stab wounds and bruises to their bodies.  

Investigators became immediately suspicious of Hobbs because he located the bodies before residents and police.  They called his reaction to the discovery odd, because he could not look anyone in the eye, referred to his daughter and her friend as “them girls” not using their names, and didn’t show the level of emotion that one would expect to see from a father after discovering the body of his daughter.  

Hobbs was taken to the police station that morning at 7:30 after searching all night.  Lake County investigators began questioning him and after maintaining his innocence for over 22 hours, he finally broke down and signed a confession after more than 24 hours of grueling interrogation using the Reid technique.  Hobbs confession stated that when he went out that night looking for Laura and her friend Krystal, he happened upon them in the woods. When he instructed Laura to come home, they resisted and Krystal pulled a knife and the girls attacked him.  Hobbs said he hit them both and got the knife away from Krystal and began stabbing her, he then turned to his daughter Laura and stabbed her as well.  

Hobbs was charged with the murders.  An initial examination found no evidence of sexual assault and since Hobbs never mentioned it in the confession further examination was not warranted.  

While awaiting trial, two years after his arrest, Hobb’s attorneys requested an examination of the girls.  It found sperm in Laura’s vagina, mouth, and anus. After testing the sample, they found a match to Krystal’s older brother Jorge Torres, who was serving a life sentence in a Virginia jail for attacking three women, one of whom he raped, choked, and then left for dead.  

When Michael Mermel heard the findings, he suggested Laura could have gotten the sperm on her while playing in the woods, where couples have sex, and then spread it elsewhere.  

Three years later, right before the trial of Hobbs was set to begin Michael Waller the state attorney had to release Hobbs because they could no longer prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.  

So in this instance they held a man awaiting a trial for a crime he did not commit for 5 years.  What ever happened to a speedy trial. Hobbs had no recourse, he was denied bail and even if granted his financial circumstances would have eliminated that possibility for him.  If his attorney’s had not investigated the crime he more than likely would have faced the death penalty and could have died for no reason. 

Hobbs was later asked why he confessed to a crime he did not commit he said he was tired, he hadn’t slept in days, and had just found the body of his daughter.  He said investigators didn’t break him, he was already broken. He felt that the truth would come out eventually.  

Despite DNA evidence exonerating Hobbs, Mermel still felt they had their man, he told the press that the girls have a popcorn night where they watch movies.  He said the girls sat on the bed where the boys masterbate and Mermel felt that the sperm could have easily gotten on Laura’s hands and she could have spread it elsewhere.  Mermel obviously has no idea how DNA works or how it is spread, choosing instead to make up fantastic stories rather than face a more realistic choice.  

Michael Waller would never charge Jorge Torres for the crime of raping and murdering the two girls.  It would have to wait for his predecessor almost ten years after the crime was committed. Both Waller and Mermel refused to prosecute the man who murdered two 9 year old girls because their pride got in the way.  

When Michael Waller chose not to run for re-election in 2012.  His predecessor, Michael Nerheim, I know apparently it is a prerequisite in Lake County to be named Michael in order to run for office. Nerheim ran on a campaign that promised reform.  He created a case review panel comprised of volunteer attorneys not previously employed by Lake County State’s Attorney office to address their issues of wrongful conviction.    

They will have a lot of cleaning up to do if they truly intend to institute real change within the system.  As time passes more and more cases are pouring out of Lake County, showing false confessions primarily where DNA is shown to exonerate many of the people in jail.  Lake County is the focus of the nation for what can go wrong in our justice system if we allow our narrow minded views to rule. For Juan Rivera he said this about this case and how it changed his life 

He said he is bitter, but not angry.  I wish I had even a fraction of the grace this man has in dealing with the atrocity that happened to him.  Rivera said that he would much rather would have had the 20 years he missed with his family than the 20 million dollars from the settlement, but he hopes that his case helps shine a light on other cases of wrongful conviction still awaiting their respective days in court.  Rivera would like to see change in the way interrogators obtain confessions taking more time to assure the information they are soliciting is willingly provided.  

Rivera will soon be headed back to court again in an effort to prove that the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force intentionally planted evidence in an attempt to secure convictions against him.  We will continue to follow the updated in the current events section on our website Bowtofate.com. In future episode we will continue to review cases of wrongful conviction so please keep listening.  

I appreciate you taking the time to listen to us today, we are going to continue to bring you quality episodes on a regular basis.  If you haven’t visited our website you can find us at bowtofate,com. Don’t forget to like us on Facebook or send a tweet to @Bowtofatepod and if you get a chance please subscribe to our podcast to stay up to date with current episodes.  Feel free to send us an email at bowtofate@gmail.com with your suggestions for upcoming episodes or call and leave a voicemail at 725-222-FATE, you may just end up on the podcast.  Till next time, stay safe and keep listening.