Cleared After 20 Years in Prison | Courthouse News Service
Thursday, November 30, 2023
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Cleared After 20 Years in Prison

CHICAGO (CN) - An exonerated Latino man spent 20 years in prison after a four-day police interrogation that triggered a mental breakdown, during which he falsely confessed to raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl, the man claims in Federal Court.

Juan Rivera Jr. sued 15 police officers, chiefs and prosecutors, the cities of Waukegan, Lake Forest and Buffalo Grove, Lake County, its Major Crimes Task Force, and police trainers John Reid & Associates in Federal Court.

In 1992, a man broke into an apartment in the North Shore suburb of Waukegan, where 11-year-old Holly Staker was babysitting two younger children. He raped and murdered Staker, stabbing her dozens of times with a knife, according to the complaint.

Under great pressure to find the murderer, the police "agreed among themselves and acted to exploit plaintiff's intellectual and emotional weaknesses to secure a confession regardless of whether it was true or false," according to the complaint, filed by Loevy & Loevy, a Chicago law office that has handled numerous civil rights complaints against Chicago police.

According to the 47-page complaint, Rivera "did not commit the crime and there was not one piece of physical evidence connecting him to the killing. The evidence that tied plaintiff to the Staker murder was a false confession concocted and coerced by the defendants over the course of four days of intensive and abusive interrogation.

"So abusive was the defendants' interrogation that plaintiff suffered a psychological breakdown during the third night of questioning. As he was experiencing this mental collapse, the defendants 'hog tied' plaintiff and placed him in a padded room. Medical personnel who observed plaintiff soon thereafter diagnosed him with acute psychosis and observed that he had torn out pieces of his scalp. Nevertheless, the defendants continued to interrogate plaintiff, and they claimed that, in the midst of this psychological break and on the fourth day of their interrogation, plaintiff confessed to killing Holly Staker."

Rivera claims his confession was demonstrably false because at the time of the murder he was under house arrest, and "ample evidence, including an electronic monitoring system that tracked plaintiff's every move at the time, established that plaintiff had been at home during the murder and could not have been involved."

He was convicted and sentenced to life without parole, narrowly avoiding the death penalty, according to the complaint.

Many years later, "new DNA testing of semen found inside of the victim excluded plaintiff and showed that a different man had raped and killed Holly Staker. After 20 years of wrongful incarceration, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed plaintiff's conviction, finding that no rational jury could ever find him guilty, and entered judgment of acquittal in his favor," the complaint states.

Rivera seeks punitive damages for coerced confession, malicious prosecution, violation of due process, conspiracy, failure to intervene, emotional distress, and defamation.

His lead counsel is Steven Art with Loevy & Loevy, with co-counsel from the Roderick MacArthur Justice Center and Bluhm Legal Clinic, both at Northwestern University School of Law.

Defendants include former Waukegan police Officers Lucian Tessman, Donald Meadie, Fernando Shipley, Howard Pratt, and Richard Davis; former Lake County Sheriff's Officers Charles Fagan and Michael Blazincic; former Illinois State Police Officers Michael Maley and James Gentilcore; current Lake Forest Police Chief James Held; former Waukegan police Officer and Lake County State's Attorney Investigators David Ostertag; former Waukegan Police Chief Phillip Stevenson; former Lake Forest Police Chief Robert Boone; former Buffalo Grove Police Officer Gary Del Re; the estate of former Lake County Sheriff Clinton Grinnell; and Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran. All of them are, or were, members of the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force, according to the complaint.

Also sued are John Reid & Associates, which allegedly provided the Major Crimes Task Force with training, advice and consultation; its services director Michael Masokas; Lake County State's Attorney Michael Waller, his chief deputy Jeffrey Pavletic, former chief deputy Steven McCollum, and former assistant state's attorneys Matthew Chancey and Michael Mermel.

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