More than two decades after 11-year-old Holly Staker was raped and killed in what became one of Lake County's most contentious prosecutions, DNA evidence from her 1992 case has been matched to a potential suspect in a second slaying that took place nearly a decade later, attorneys said Tuesday.
DNA evidence from blood obtained from a two-by-four used to beat Delwin Foxworth in early 2000 — before he was doused with gasoline and set on fire — matches DNA from semen taken from Holly's body, according to the attorneys and court documents.
A lawyer for the man convicted of Foxworth's murder said the evidence shows that his client, Marvin Tyrone Williford, is innocent — as he has long insisted.
The DNA match also buttresses evidence that Juan Rivera was wrongly convicted of Holly's rape and murder and that the failure to identify and arrest her real killer allowed that same person to take part in Foxworth's murder eight years later, according to one of Rivera's attorneys.
“While Mr. Rivera fought to clear his name and officials fought to keep him in prison, the man who really committed the crime was free to commit this additional crime,” said Steven Art, one of Rivera's attorneys. “It's the antithesis of good policing in our society. The community suffers as well.”
Despite the DNA match, the identity of the one potential suspect in both killings remains unknown. Authorities have entered the genetic profile into DNA databanks of convicted criminals but have not obtained a match.
The DNA represents a break in a case that long has been hamstrung by law enforcement focusing so much of its attention and energy on Rivera and undermines its recent claims that he still remained a potential suspect in Holly's rape and killing 21/2 years after his release from prison. It adds to the woes of Lake County prosecutors and police who have earned a reputation for bungling and ignoring DNA evidence when it contradicts their theory of a prosecution.
Indeed, the case bears troubling similarities to that of Jerry Hobbs, a Lake County father who was wrongly accused of the murder of his daughter and another young girl in 2005 in Zion. DNA later connected Jorge Torrez to the two murders. The former Marine was sentenced to death in April for the strangulation murder of a sailor in Virginia in 2009. Torrez also was convicted of attacking three women in Virginia in 2010.
Holly was baby-sitting two younger children when she was raped and fatally stabbed in 1992. Rivera was convicted three times at trial, largely on the strength of a confession he disavowed. After his third conviction and life sentence, the Illinois Appellate Court in 2011 again threw out the conviction and barred prosecutors from trying Rivera again, saying there was insufficient evidence of his guilt. The court also faulted detectives with the Lake County Major Crime Task Force for interrogating Rivera over four days and using psychological techniques to manipulate him into confessing.
Police and prosecutors were also criticized for trying to explain away the DNA evidence by claiming that Holly, at 11, was sexually active and that the semen found in her body came from consensual sex shortly before her murder. Rivera's attorneys denied the claims.
In January, the Tribune reported that Waukegan police had recovered a serrated knife just steps from the murder scene about two years after Holly was killed but that they destroyed the weapon without notifying Rivera's attorneys or conducting any forensic testing.
Foxworth, then 39, was attacked by three robbers who invaded his North Chicago residence in January 2000, held him at gunpoint and then beat him with a board and tied him up. When he refused to give up any cash, they doused him with gasoline and set him on fire. After the gunmen fled, he extinguished the flames and sought help. He died in August 2002 as a result of the attack.
Police ended up arresting only Williford. At trial, Foxworth's girlfriend, who witnessed the attack, appeared to describe Williford as the assailant who mainly wielded the two-by-four. He was convicted in 2004 largely on the strength of the lone identification and was sentenced to 80 years in prison.
Williford, who has maintained his innocence, never confessed, and no physical evidence connected him to the crime, according to his attorney, David Owens of the University of Chicago Law School's Exoneration Project. Now 43, Williford is being held in Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet.
DNA from Foxworth, whose blood also was found on the board, was excluded from Holly's case.
Williford was prosecuted by George Strickland and Christopher Stride, now both judges in Lake County.
At a hearing Tuesday in Lake County Circuit Court, Owens argued that Williford deserves a new trial based on the new evidence. The judge scheduled another hearing for next week.
Lake County State's Attorney Mike Nerheim, who after his election in 2012 promised to improve an office with a national reputation for locking up the wrong men, declined to comment on the value of the new evidence.
Nerheim said he learned of the DNA link from Waukegan police about two weeks ago and was aware that investigators tasked with trying to solve Holly's murder have been contacting witnesses in the Williford case. Prosecutors are assessing the evidence in the Williford case while Waukegan police continue to investigate Holly's murder, he said.
Owens said after court that he believes the evidence indicates the same person killed both Holly and Foxworth.
“We do believe that the evidence powerfully indicates Mr. Williford's innocence,” he said.
Attorney Jed Stone, who defended Williford at trial, recalled his disappointment at the verdict and said he was heartened by the DNA.
“I'm one of these delusional trial lawyers,” Stone said, “but I really thought we won that case, and I was absolutely crushed by the verdict.”
Rivera, who has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against authorities in Lake County, reacted to the news of the DNA by saying his thoughts were with the families of both murder victims.
He also said he wished the DNA evidence had been revealed “before I served nearly 20 years in prison for a crime I did not commit.”