by Derek Gilna
No one appreciates the challenges of re-entering society like a former prisoner, especially one who was wrongfully convicted.
For exonerated ex-prisoner Juan Rivera of Illinois, his experiences led him to invest some of his multi-million dollar wrongful conviction settlement into training low-income students at a barber’s school in Chicago’s South Side, according to a March 2018 news article.
Rivera was convicted three times for the 1992 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl and sentenced to life, even though DNA evidence excluded him as the perpetrator. Then 19 years old with an IQ of 79, he signed a confession written by police officers after three days of questioning. Rivera’s conviction was overturned by the Illinois Appellate Court in 2011 and the charges were dismissed the following year. He was stabbed twice during the two decades he served in prison.
The number of known wrongful convictions in the United States has risen to almost 2,300, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, with most of those who have been released serving over 10 years, like Rivera and Kristine Bunch. Bunch spent 17 years in prison for the arson death of her young son before she was exonerated and released in 2012. Like Rivera, she is doing her part to assist wrongfully-convicted prisoners by starting a charitable foundation to help them upon their release, called “Justis4justus.”
According to Bunch, “The moment you get out is incredible. Then the cameras leave, and you realize you don’t even have a toothbrush.” Rivera agreed, stating, “No one can walk in our shoes or understand but us.” After all of the years he served behind bars, he added, “We don’t know what normal is.”
Lauren Kaeseberg, legal director of the Illinois Innocence Project, maintains that most prisoners who are released receive some assistance from the state, but those who are exonerated get nothing unless they take legal action.
Bunch did just that, filing a lawsuit against the investigators in her case, which remains pending. On January 30, 2018, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court’s grant of summary judgment to the defendants and remanded for further proceedings. See: Bunch v. United States, 880 F.3d 938 (7th Cir. 2018).
Rivera also filed suit after his release from prison in 2012, against police officials in the City of Waukegan and Lake County, Illinois, and obtained a $20 million settlement in March 2015. After attorney fees and other costs he received around $11.4 million.
Despite the substantial settlement, Rivera still suffers emotional scars and “pain and suffering” from his wrongful conviction and lengthy incarceration.
“I’ve been out a little over five years, and I still cannot go out in public, like in a big crowd,” he said. “I get nervous, I start sweating. I get into panic attacks, so it’s still a process. I still get death threats and ... people are very ignorant and approach me.”
However, he has tried to focus on the positive. Befriended in prison by a guard who was also the barber instructor, Rivera contributed $300,000 to start the Legacy Barber College in Chicago.
“How many people come to the South Side, to the ghetto, to give less fortunate individuals an opportunity?” he asked. “Whether they have committed crimes or not, I felt that this was the perfect opportunity to show that we can give back.” According to Rivera, “I’m at peace, doing things I’m passionate about.”
Which is something all former prisoners can relate to and identify with.
Sources: www.abc7chicago.com, www.chicagotribune.com, www.innocenceproject.org, www.loyolaphoenix.com, www.justis4justus.org, www.dailyherald.com
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