On Monday in Lake County , one of the area's most complex and controversial murder cases -- marked by an allegedly fake confession, a questionable eyewitness account and a DNA sample that belongs to someone other than the defendant -- will go to trial for the third time.
Juan Rivera of Waukegan, now 36, was first accused of raping and killing 11-year-old baby-sitter Holly Staker in 1992 and was convicted in 1993. He won a new trial, and was convicted again, then won again when advances in DNA showed that the semen found on the victim did not belong to him.
It is unusual some two decades into the age of DNA for a prosecution to go forward when the DNA in a sexual assault-murder excludes the defendant. In dozens of cases DNA has been the evidence that has set prisoners free, even after police have said they confessed.
Police and prosecutors have suggested two answers to that puzzle. The first is that Holly, although only 11, may have been sexually active and engaged in sex shortly before she was murdered, prosecutors have said.
The second answer prosecutors may offer is that the DNA was contaminated. They have already raised concerns in court that because an earlier sample was contaminated, a sample used for the most recent tests -- highly discriminating tests by one of the nation's top DNA experts -- also might be contaminated.
The scientists say that is not true. And the defense notes that prosecutors have not alleged contamination before.
"This was a crime scene rich with forensic evidence: blood, hair, fingerprints, semen, of course, fibers. You name it," said Jeffrey Urdangen, one of Rivera 's lawyers. "The number of articles they've connected to Juan Rivera ? Zero."
Rivera was convicted the first time largely on the basis of his disputed confession as well as testimony from another prison inmate who said that Rivera had confessed to him while awaiting trial. That conviction was set aside in 1996 by the Illinois Appellate Court, which ruled that the trial judge, Christopher Starck, had made a series of errors as he presided over the case. At the time of the second trial in 1998, state crime lab analysts said that DNA tests were inconclusive, and Rivera was again convicted and sentenced to life.
The third trial will be the first time jurors hear about the lack of DNA match. Other new factors in the long-running case include a possible alibi for Rivera , and a witness who came forward 13 years after the killing to claim he saw Rivera running around with a knife.
Rivera 's whereabouts the night of the killing are disputed, in part because he changed his own account to police about going out to a party instead of being home.
Defense lawyers say, however, that he was at home and on a jail monitoring system attached to his leg. They say the system never signaled that Rivera left home. The prosecution has suggested in court that it would challenge the system, contending it was malfunctioning.
Prosecutors also have found a new witness, a retired gas company worker who says that on the day of the murder he was at the apartment to turn on the gas. While there, according to a statement he gave police, he saw Rivera chasing Holly with a knife, but did not intervene. In a recent Tribune interview, Leon Seay said Rivera chased him with a knife too.
Defense attorneys have questioned his account by wondering why he took so long to come forward. Dawn Engelbrecht, who lived in the apartment with the two young children Holly was baby-sitting, is expected to be called as a witness, though she is backing away from an early statement she gave police.
Engelbrecht said in an interview with the Tribune that the gas was working and there was no service call that day. Engelbrecht's daughter, Taylor, who was 2 1/2 at the time of the murder, testified at the second trial that Rivera carried her into the bedroom. But Engelbrecht said the entire family was pressured and that they cannot link Rivera to the case. She even recanted claims she had made tying Rivera to the scene after the murder. She said she "caved" against pressure from detectives.
"I was wrong, and I knew I was wrong," she said in a recent interview. "I just went along with it. And I shouldn't have."
For prosecutors the key piece of evidence against Rivera may very well be the confession, typed by detectives and signed by Rivera , they've used in the previous two trials.
In the confession, Rivera claimed to be high on drugs when he committed the crime, but the confession also offers specific, focused details and an apology:
"There were two beds in this bedroom, one on each side of the room, along with a dresser," "I was wearing a red T-shirt, blue jeans, and white Nike tennis shoes with red stripes," and, "I could not believe what I had done, and now realize I made the wrong decision in going into the apartment with Holly in the first place."
The entire interrogation, the defense says, took 39 hours over four days, including one continuous span for 26 hours.
Rivera has an IQ of 79, according to court records, placing him in the lowest 10th percentile of the population. He had a mental breakdown, the defense says, so extreme during the interrogation that detectives' accounts note he began sobbing uncontrollably and banging his head against the wall, and was unresponsive when he was told to stop. He began hyperventilating, speaking incoherently, and pulling his hair out. He was placed in a padded cell, put on anti-psychotic and anti-anxiety drugs, and was observed as looking dazed.
The confession, Rivera 's attorneys say, is full of language that doesn't sound like it came from a person whose IQ means he has the intellectual abilities of the average elementary school student: Words like "intention," "seduce," "consent" and "conscience."
Saul Kassin, PhD, a member of the department of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, filed papers in the Rivera case at the defense's request. Without saying whether he felt the confession was real or not, Kassin pointed out that in cases where confessions were later proven to be false, the percent of those confessions that came from people with mental disabilities far exceeds the percent of people with mental disabilities in the general population.