More than 20 years after 11-year-old Holly Staker was raped and murdered in one of Illinois’ most contentious cases, DNA evidence from her case has been matched to a suspect in a second murder that occurred 10 years after Staker’s.  DNA evidence obtained from a two-by-four used to beat Delwin Foxworth in 2000 matches DNA from semen taken from Staker’s body in the early 90s.  A lawyer for the man convicted of Foxworth’s murder says the evidence shows that his client is innocent as he has long insisted.  The DNA match also shows that Juan Rivera was wrongly convicted of Staker’s rape and murder and that the failure to identify and arrest Staker’s real killer allowed Foxworth to be killed years later and two innocent men to be sent to prison.

“While Mr. Rivera fought to clear his name and officials fought to keep him in prison, the man who really committed the crime was free…It’s the antithesis of good policing…” said Steven Art, Rivera’s attorney.

Despite the DNA matches, the identity of the potential suspect remains unknown.  Authorities have entered the profile in DNA databases, but have not obtained any matches.  The new link represents a break in the case, but also an embarrassment for authorities, who even recently said that Rivera was still a suspect in Staker’s murder.

The case bears similarities to Jerry Hobbs, a father who was wrongfully accused of murdering his daughter and another young girl in 2005.  DNA later connected Jorge Torrez to the two murders.  He was sentenced to death for killing a sailor in 2009.  Torrez also attacked three women in 2010.

Staker was babysitting two children when she was raped and stabbed to death in 1992.  Rivera was convicted three times on the strength of a false confession.  Authorities drew criticism for their “methods” in obtaining his confession.  After his third trial and life sentence, the Illinois Appellate Court in 2011 once again overturned his conviction and prohibited his retrial, in a rare ruling, saying there was insufficient evidence against him.  Rivera was released and has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against authorities.  He maintains his innocence.

The case was marred by controversy and criticism especially for prosecutor’s comments that the DNA evidence was the result of Staker, who was 11, having consensual sex with someone else shortly before her murder.  Earlier this year it was revealed the police recovered a knife just steps from the murder scene about 2 years after the murder, but destroyed it without notifying defense attorneys or testing it.

Foxworth, 39, was attacked by 3 men in a home invasion in 2000.  He was held at gunpoint, beaten, tied up, robbed, then doused in gasoline and set on fire.  After the gunmen fled, he freed himself, extinguished the flames, and sought help.  He died in 2002 from his injuries.  Police identified three suspects, but arrested only Marvin Tyrone Williford, 43.  He was convicted in 2004 based upon eyewitness testimony and was sentenced to 80 years.  Williford also maintains his innocence.  There was never any physical evidence to link Williford.

The DNA match from Staker’s killing to Foxworth’s death adds strength to both men’s innocence claims.  Williford was prosecuted by George Strickland and Christopher Stride who are now both judges.  David Owens, Williford’s attorney, who works with the University of Chicago Law School’s Exoneration Project, argued at a recent hearing that the new evidence merits a new trial.  Another hearing is scheduled for June 18th.

CORRECTION:  An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified the location as Wisconsin.

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