Rivera spent more than 19 years in prison in connection with the rape and murder of 11-year-old Holly Staker of Waukegan in 1992. His case had gone to trial three times over the years.
Rivera cleared the last hurdle to freedom Friday when the Lake County prosecutor said he will not challenge an appellate court decision reversing Rivera's conviction on murder charges. In a unanimous decision last month, a three-member appellate court reversed the third and latest conviction of Rivera.
The court used the words highly improbable and absurd to describe the prosecution's theory of how the crime occurred. There was no forensic evidence. DNA pointed to someone else. Juan Rivera had long insisted that his confession was coerced.
After reviewing his limited options, Lake county state's attorney Mike Waller announced Friday: "I have decided that I will not ask the Illinois Supreme court to review the appellate court's decision... The prosecution of Mr. Rivera comes to a conclusion today."
"I would just thank God, you know, that this ordeal is over. It's a new beginning for my family and myself," said Rivera after he was released from Stateville correctional center in Joliet late Friday afternoon..
From inside Statesville, where he has spent nearly half his life, Rivera was on the phone with his attorneys Friday morning when they got word of the decision. Rivera said, "This is the first day of the rest of my life."
Rivera, his family and lawyers left Joliet after his release and headed for downtown Chicago. Their destination was Northwestern Law School's Center on Wrongful Convictions. Rivera, who had not been in a car lately, said he got a little carsick on his way downtown.
"[It is] a very beautiful feeling to know that I'm finally home after all these years - I just got to move forward and live life as best as I can," said Rivera.
There was champagne and plenty of affection. Rivera was surrounded by family and the legal minds who helped set him free.
"It's a very happy moment - we've been waiting so long. We knew the day was going to come, we did not know when, and here it is," said Rivera's brother, Miguel Rivera.
Rivera's nieces had only known him while he was in prison.
"I met him in jail," said niece Cassandra Leon. "And since then I've wrote letters, I talked to him on the phone. I went to visit him. I told him my whole life."
Friday night, at the legal hub that made this possible, Northwestern Law School's Center on Wrongful Convictions, Rivera, his legal allies, and his family all celebrated, but also noted that the case is still not solved.
"We would really like for this case to be used as the focus for reform of police interrogation procedures," said Rob Warden, Executive Director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions
"Of course, we want to see this case solved. That's the ultimate goal we have," said Melissa Sanders-Rivera, Rivera's wife.
"I'm praying Lake County does the right thing and actually moves on this and work on finding the true person that committed this crime," said Rivera.
For now, Rivera will savor this celebration. At just 39 years old, he knows he still has a lot of life ahead of him.
"Anything is possible as long as you stay positive, never give up and always move forward," said Rivera.
Rivera says he wants to go college. He is interested in computers and business management. He is also looking forward to getting reacquainted with his family and friends, and spending time with them.
Holly Staker's mother outraged over freeing of Rivera
Holly Staker's mother said she is outraged that the appellate court ignored the verdicts of three different juries.
Nancy Kalinowski told ABC7's news partner, the Daily Herald: "Thirty-six jurors heard the evidence; they all said he was guilty, and now, all of a sudden, he just walks out. That is a slap in the face to those jurors, and a slap in my family's face."