Freed after 20 years, man gets $20M; another whose DNA doesn't match linked murder is still jailed

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An Illinois man who was exonerated in a 1992 child-murder case after being tried and convicted three times and serving nearly 20 years in prison has won a $20 million settlement from authorities in the collar county outside Chicago where the trials took place.

The amount that will be paid to Juan Rivera by governmental entities including the city of Waukegan, Lake County and the state of Illinois may be the largest ever for an individual in a wrongful conviction case in Illinois, reports the Chicago Tribune.

An appeals court in 2012 reversed his third conviction, based on DNA evidence that excluded Rivera and linked another suspect to the rape and murder of Holly Staker, 11, who was stabbed to death while babysitting. The appeals court also barred Rivera from being retried in the case, the newspaper reports. An Innocence Project page maintained by the Center on Wrongful Convictions provides more details.

Meanwhile, DNA from the same unknown individual in Staker’s case also was found on a two-by-four used in another fatal attack almost a decade later in a North Chicago home. Lake County authorities say three individuals were involved in the slaying of Delwin Foxworth, but only Marvin Williford has been convicted. He is serving an 80-year sentence.

On Tuesday, prosecutors told a Lake County judge that Williford should not be released because a reinvestigation had confirmed his guilt in the slaying of the 39-year-old, who was beaten and set on fire during a robbery, according to the Chicago Tribune. Outside court, assistant state’s attorney Ari Fisz told the newspaper that eyewitness testimony supported the conviction and said that DNA evidence did not exonerate Williford, noting that the board contained DNA from multiple people.

Foxworth died of burn injuries two years after the January 2000 crime occurred, and Williford was charged in 2003, the Chicago Tribune reported at the time.

“We are exceedingly disappointed in their decision,” Williford’s lawyer, David Owens of the University of Chicago’s Exoneration Project told the Daily Herald after the hearing. “We feel there was enough DNA evidence to warrant a new trial.”

Owens said in December that no forensic evidence links Williford to the murder, the Chicago Tribune reported at that time.

Earlier Forensic magazine and WBBM stories provide additional details about the Williford case.

Another convicted defendant in an unrelated Waukegan rape case, Angel Gonzalez, was freed last week after nearly 20 years in prison when prosecutors agreed that DNA evidence exonerated him and showed that two unknown men had committed 1994 abduction and rape, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Gonzalez had initially remained behind bars after his March 9 exoneration, due to a property-crime conviction over a sink he broke while in solitary confinement, but a downstate Illinois judge agreed on March 10 to vacate that Livingston County conviction, resulting in the release of Gonzalez within hours.

Related coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “FBI Ordered to Do DNA Search to Help Suspect in Rape-Murder Case”

ABAJournal.com: “Shoes said to contain killer’s blood weren’t for sale in US at time of murder, suit claims”

Chicago Tribune: “Judge orders tests for alleged evidence tampering in Juan Rivera case”

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