In the annals of false confession cases, Juan Rivera's case is near the top of the list of false confessors who remain locked up due to the inability of the criminal justice system to recognize that a mistake was made (Martin Tankleff is probably at the top of the list). Rivera's case was mentioned in Richard Ofshe and Richard Leo's seminal 1998 article in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology as a case in which a false confessor was "convicted and never officially exonerated." Rivera, locked up since 1993, has twice been convicted of the murder and rape of 11 year old Holly Staker of Waukegan, IL based on little more than a confession wrung out of him during a grueling interrogation, an interrogation that was so coercive that it caused Rivera to have a psychotic breakdown and left him curled up in a fetal position in a padded cell, pulling out clumps of his own hair. The confession was a written confession prepared by police and presented to Rivera to sign after his breakdown. Two previous confessions were so filled with errors that police had to re-write the third and final confession to more closely match the crime scene evidence.
Over a year ago, new DNA tests taken from swab sticks and the vial in which the swabs were stored of the original rape kit, excluded Rivera as the source of semen. Since then, numerous other DNA tests have failed to link Rivera or anyone else to the crime. Prosecutors, in filings before the court, have stated that the fact that Rivera was not the source of the semen does not mean he was not guilty, and even have hinted that the 11 year old pre-pubescent victim may have engaged in consensual sex earlier in the day she was killed.
Yesterday, Rivera's hopes were once again raised when Lake County Circuit Court Judge Christopher Starck granted him a new trial on the basis of the DNA evidence. In newspaper accounts in today's Tribune and Daily Herald, prosecutors have shown some ambivalence about whether to retry Rivera a third time (in the Trib, it sounds like a sure thing, in the Daily Herald, it sounds like they haven't made up their mind). Either way, prosecutors will have to completely change their theory if they retry Rivera. At both previous trials, their theory, based on the confession, was that Rivera was the lone predator. If they retry Rivera, they will have to now either claim a phantom second perpetrator was involved or argue that the victim had consensual sex. The next status date in the case is in mid September. A decision on how the State will proceed may be known by that date.
For more info on the Rivera case -- see http://www.law.northwestern.edu/cwc/exonerations/Rivera.htm