An April 3 panel discussion on wrongful convictions gave law students at Northern Illinois University a powerful lesson about the long, and sometimes twisting, road to justice.
Delivering that lesson was Juan Rivera, who spent 19 years of his life behind bars for a crime he did not commit – the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. Rivera was released Jan. 6 from Statesville Prison, thanks to the efforts of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University.
“This case was like a class in criminal procedure, but rather than a hypothetical, it is real, something that was in the headlines,” said Leonard Mandell, associate dean of the NIU College of Law, who organized the event in conjunction with the school’s Criminal Law Society.
NIU law students got a firsthand description of the events of the case from Rivera, members of his defense team, Judge Susan Hutchinson (who wrote the decision for the panel that exonerated Rivera) and Hutchinson’s clerk, Stacey Mandell, a 1996 graduate of NIU Law.
“This was one of the most sensational cases ever to come out of Lake County,” said Jane Raley, who began handling Rivera’s appeal in 2003, in her role as senior staff attorney at the Center on Wrongful Convictions. “The facts of the case unfold like a John Grisham novel, and the injustices that we saw along the way made it heartbreaking for all of us.”
Rivera, who was 19 at the time he went to jail, was convicted three separate times, based largely upon the strength of a confession that he later recanted. Each conviction resulted in a life sentence. He finally regained his freedom when an appeals court decided that, based upon new DNA evidence presented at his third trial that, “no rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Despite nearly two decades in jail, which he described as “a place that is literally Hell,” Rivera says that he is not bitter.
“In order to be bitter I would have to live life angry, and I don’t have time to be angry. I just need to move forward with my life, get my education, get a job … I’m looking forward to a brighter future. I’m not thinking about the past.”
Rivera, who taught himself to speak both Arabic and Hebrew while behind bars, is currently working at a lab at Northwestern and will attend school there.
Raley said that she hoped that by sharing Rivera’s story with students at the NIU College of Law, some of them might be inspired to battle injustice in the future, no matter what career path they choose.
“Once they have been exposed to the issue of false confessions or wrongful identifications, maybe they will go on to a career as a criminal defense attorney,” she said. “Even if they work in a big law firm, maybe they’ll fight to take on a big pro bono case and represent someone who has no money. Or, if they work in a prosecutor’s office they will make the right kind of decisions at critical times during a criminal case.”