Juan Rivera, released last month after serving 19 years in prison for being wrongfully convicted of murder, spoke yesterday afternoon at Stanford Law School about his experience.
Speaking to an audience of over 100 students and faculty, law professor Lawrence Marshall — Rivera’s lead appellate counsel — recounted his client’s ordeal.
Rivera’s case began in 1992 when 11-year old Holly Staker was found violently raped and murdered in her home. Rivera, in jail at the time on a minor, non-violent charge, told a fellow inmate that he had seen a suspicious person entering and leaving a party in the vicinity of the murder.
On discovering that Rivera’s lead was false, investigators questioned the motivation for his misleading testimony. Rivera was brought up from custody and interrogated for three days, upon which he eventually confessed to the crime.
“But his confession was blatantly wrong,” Marshall said.
Although the confession that Rivera originally made didn’t match up with the evidence from the crime, according to Marshall, “they extracted a different confession, correcting the various mistakes within a few hours.”
Although the state sought the death penalty for Rivera, he was instead sentenced to life in prison.
“I was surprised and relieved,” Rivera sad. “But I was a young kid and naive. Prison is still a death penalty; it’s just in one you die quicker than the other.”
Rivera’s case was reopened in 1996, with his defense hinging on an electronic tag, attached to his ankle, which showed that Rivera was at home the entire day of the crime. Prosecution claimed the tag had broken, and the evidence was disregarded. In 2005, a lawyer from Northwestern University heard Rivera’s story and got involved, pointing to a lack of DNA evidence from the crime scene.
“Juan Rivera’s DNA was not there,” Marshall said. “There was a single perpetrator. This is a classic false confession case. Instead of dropping the case, the prosecution forges ahead and says there might have been DNA contamination. The prosecution claimed that the girl was already sexually active.”
Twelve students from Stanford Law School worked on Rivera’s successful appeal. Patricia Pei ‘04 J.D. ‘10 was one of them. Pei became involved with the case after reading an email about Rivera.
“We were lucky to meet Juan and see him face to face,” Pei said. “He was struggling through life in prison, but he was still maintaining overall a really positive attitude. I thought, if this is how the guy in prison is doing, I better work my ass off when I get home.”
“The students showed me what humanity was,” Rivera said. “I was wrongly convicted, and I was in prison hoping someone would listen.”
In prison, Rivera educated himself. He would ask the students for books to read and thanked them for encouraging him to learn.
“I would tie the books up with string and use them as weights, too,” Rivera added. “You have to be both healthy in body and mind.”
Rivera also became a vegan during his time in prison and helped cook food for fellow inmates.
“After my second trial in 1993, I thought myself a monster, but I educated myself to show others who I truly am as opposed to what I’m convicted to be. I refused to come home uneducated, come home as Juan,” Rivera said. “Not everyone in prison is simply lost.”
“There are preliminary things this case can teach us,” Marshall said. “On the legal side, we now understand the extent to which confessions are tremendously dangerous devices, especially with the way that they can be extracted. With a videotape of the interrogation, Rivera would have never been convicted. The jury needs to be able to see what was in the sausage of the confession.
“The other point that I want to make is that lawyers were not only part of solution but also part of problem,” Marshall added. “Juan’s prosecutors were condemned with a case of tunnel vision and became so wedded to the idea that he was guilty that they couldn’t see what other people could see in the evidence. We have to remember to not be wedded so we can open our eyes to new information.”
Rivera received a standing ovation as Marshall offered him a cardinal Stanford sweater.
“Now I have the chance to go to college, go home, meet my parents,” Rivera concluded. “I love the sun; I love petting the dog. These are things we take for granted, but I cherish every second of life.”
“I think it’s strange that people talk about how monumental these kinds of things are, because I feel that Juan did this for himself,” Pei said. “I want to emphasize that even though this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, stories like these exist, and they are waiting to be told, and it’s a matter of putting yourself out there to take on those stories. You have the opportunities and connections to make these kinds of things happen. If you have the chance to be a part of it, be part of it.”