As reported by the Chicago Tribune, more than two decades after Jenner & Block pro bono client Juan Rivera was charged with the rape and murder of an 11-year old girl, DNA evidence from her case has been matched to a potential suspect in a separate murder. DNA evidence from blood obtained from a two-by-four used to beat a man in 2000 – before he was doused with gasoline and set on fire – matches DNA from semen taken from the girl’s body, according to court documents and interviews.
The evidence supports Mr. Rivera’s innocence as he has long insisted. This development comes more than two years after he was released from prison, after an Illinois appeals court reversed his first-degree murder conviction. In 2011, Jenner & Block, along with Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, achieved a significant victory in the case, People v. Juan Rivera, a high-profile and long-running indigent criminal defense matter in Lake County, Illinois. In an opinion released in December 2011, a unanimous three-judge panel of the Illinois Appellate Court for the Second District reversed, outright, Mr. Rivera’s murder conviction, holding that “the State’s evidence was insufficient to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” Mr. Rivera was released from prison in January 2012.
Twice convicted of the same crime – the girl’s sexual assault and murder in 1992 – Mr. Rivera’s first conviction was overturned in light of questions surrounding trial procedure and evidence and his second conviction was vacated when new DNA testing obtained through the efforts of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Law School revealed he was not the source of sperm found in the victim.
Jenner & Block joined Mr. Rivera’s defense team for a third trial in 2009, addressing issues raised in the prior convictions. At trial, the State, as it had in the first two trials, relied heavily upon the statements signed by Mr. Rivera after extensive interrogation. The State attempted to explain away the DNA evidence by arguing that the rape kit may have been contaminated or that the 11-year-old victim may have had sexual relations with someone else before she was murdered. Despite the lack of any physical evidence linking him to the crime scene, and strong defense evidence that the statements our client signed after the unrecorded interrogations were false, inaccurate and obtained after a psychotic breakdown, the jury found Mr. Rivera guilty and he was sentenced to life without parole. Addressing the jury’s verdict, the appellate court opinion stated, “After viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, we hold that no rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The firm’s team, led by Partners Thomas P. Sullivan, Terri L. Mascherin and Andrew W. Vail, with assistance from Associate Daniel T. Fenske, Senior Paralegal Shawn K. McGee, former associate Sarah F. Terman, and several others, devoted more than 12,000 pro bono hours to Mr. Rivera’s trial and appeal, in partnership with Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions and former Northwestern law professor Larry Marshall.