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What It's Like to Get Exonerated of Murder After 21 Years in Prison

Relief, gratitude, paranoia, and keeping a butcher's knife under your pillow.

by Alison Flowers
Jun 1 2016, 4:00am

Illustration by Matt Rota

In the following exclusive excerpt from VICE contributor Alison Flowers's new book, Exoneree Diaries: The Fight for Innocence, Independence, and Identity, out June 7, the action is centered in Chicago's Cook County, wrongful conviction capital of the United States. The book explores what happens to innocent people when the state flings open the jailhouse door and tosses them out into the unknown. The below chapter takes place just as the murder conviction of one man, Jacques Rivera, is suddenly overturned after more than 20 years. On release, he's greeted with much media fanfare, only to find himself paranoid and overwhelmed by freedom.

Jacques Rivera slid a butcher's knife under his pillow.

The 46-year-old man was tucked away in a second-floor apartment bedroom at his sister's bungalow on the northwest side of Chicago. He couldn't fall asleep. The hours crept past midnight.

The previous day, October 4, 2011, had been a remarkable Tuesday. He had finally gained his freedom, 7,841 days after being convicted of first-degree murder. He had been a few weeks shy of his 25th birthday when he was sent to "Hotel Hell"—Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison in Joliet, Illinois, just southwest of the Chicago metro area. For more than 20 years, that was his home. A 33-foot wall, his picket fence.

On the Tuesday morning in 2011, Rivera's family and friends occupied the rows on both sides of the courtroom. From the state's side of the room, they could get a better look at him, or so they had learned during the hearings leading up to this one. In the third row, Rivera's three children sat together. Near them, Rivera's older sister, Jeanette, was breathing heavily, praying next to her mother, Gwendolyn. In recent weeks, the two women had shared dreams that Rivera's release would be imminent. In the dream, he would tell them: It'll come. It'll come. Wait. Wait. Wait.

"All rise," the bailiff ordered.

Cook County Judge Neera Walsh began the hearing with a stern warning: "I know I don't have to remind anybody in the courtroom that there will be no outbursts of any kind, regardless of what happens today, right?"

Rivera's supporters looked at one another, trying to decode the judge's words. Did this mean he was going to be freed? Or would he be sent back to Stateville for the rest of his 80-year sentence?

"OK. And if anybody does have a cellphone, they need to turn it off. Not on silent, not on vibrate, but off. And if you don't, there will be consequences, OK?" Walsh instructed.

The state proceeded. "Motion State nolle."

"It would be a motion State nolle prose," the judge repeated.

Rivera had never heard this legal term. Nolle pros or prose, short for nolle prosequi, is Latin for, "We shall no longer prosecute."

The moment fell like dust in a split-second, one of Rivera's sons describes.

"Mr. Rivera, you are released," Walsh said. "Good luck to you, sir."

The crowd gasped, trying not to make too much noise. Managing the shock, Rivera shook his head. He didn't want to move around too much, fearing the bailiff would think he was going to run.

Rivera was free, yes—but not quite. There was, of course, paperwork to be done, and he would need to be processed out of the jail where he had been waiting for his new trial on appeal.

Unable to stifle their excitement any longer—like children about to explode into laughter in the middle of church— Rivera's family and supporters burst through the courtroom doors and began to scream, cheer, and hug one another in the lofty hallway. They took out the cellphones they weren't supposed to have in the building and started calling and texting, spreading the news.

Jeanette, who had complied with the no-cell policy, hustled outside to her parked car, where she opened the glove compartment and grabbed her brother-in-law's phone to call her daughter and husband.

"He's free," she said.

Hanging onto receipts had become a longstanding family joke. What's your alibi? Where you at? What are you doing? Got your receipts?

Inside the jail, correctional officers escorted Rivera about, buffering his every move. Should he trip and fall or become injured, the Department of Corrections could be held liable.

Rivera had no property. The staff found some jeans and a T-shirt that would fit him. The outtake process lingered for hours. They wanted to be sure, Rivera thought.

In the waiting room at the sheriff's office, his attorneys, Jane Raley and Judy Royal, were waiting for him. Rivera started to weep when he saw their beaming faces. Jane had taken an interest in Rivera's case more than a decade earlier, and she handed him a Chicago Bears sports jacket, a gift from one of his sons, who was waiting outside.

A correctional officer asked if they were ready. As they headed toward the door, Rivera started hyperventilating. He stooped to catch his breath. "It's OK," the officer calmed him, patiently. "If you want to go back, we can wait."

"I've waited twenty-one years," Rivera told him. "I'm never going to go back. I'm moving forward." With his head slightly down, clasping his mouth to contain the nausea, he walked through gates and chilly air, flanked by his two pillars—Jane and Judy.

A shaky, 14-second cellphone video captured the moment at dusk when, amid a cheering and whistling crowd, TV news cameras, and bright lights, Rivera looked up and saw the world before him. Greeting him first, three of his four children—Jacques Jr., who was almost 29; Richard, 27; and Jennifer, 23—ran to him, defying orders from officers who had advised the crowd to stand back. As they ran, arms extended, they reached for their sobbing father. Can't nobody stop us now, Jacques Jr. remembers thinking.

After breaking free from a string of embraces, Rivera stopped to pose for a picture with his children. Their stance mirrored a Polaroid photo taken of them during a prison visit shortly after his 1990 conviction. In that family snapshot, Rivera held his baby girl Jennifer in his arms, with his younger son Richard to his left, and Jacques Jr., the oldest, to his right.

"Real strange how that was, you know?" Rivera says of the two photos, which now hang juxtaposed in his bedroom.

Illustration by Matt Rota

News cameras clicked and flickered as Rivera hugged his sobbing mother, her cries ambient in the TV footage. "I was afraid somebody was going to pinch me and say you're dreamin'," Gwendolyn Rivera told reporters as her son draped his arms over her shoulders, as if to stabilize her or soak up her pain. "But"—his mother gasped for breath between tears—"it's a dream come true."

Six microphones with news flags appeared before Rivera. His supporters hovered behind him. Friends toted poster boards featuring fuzzy mug shots of a younger Rivera, in his early 20s. Now his face appeared gray, bearded, exhausted.

"The City of Chicago needs to know the truth. I didn't kill that young man," Rivera shouted over the microphones, his voice brimming with an angry sadness. "And that's the bottom line."

The cameras turned to Jane, and she offered some of the protracted backstory of appealing the case. "I thought, My goodness! This person should not have been convicted in the first place," she told the reporters. "And then it took us ten years to find the eyewitness."

Reporters asked Rivera about the eyewitness, a young boy who testified against him at his original trial for the gang killing of a neighborhood teen. The witness, now a man in his 30s living in a different state, had come forward to say it was all one huge, haunting lie.

"I love Orlando Lopez," Rivera said. "It wasn't his fault. He was a twelve-year-old boy. He was misguided. He was manipulated."

Throughout the press conference, Rivera also collected laughs from the crowd, frequently praising his lawyers. "America had a 1996 Olympic dream team," he said. "This is my dream team!"

Jane beamed her wide, effusive smile that could delicately stretch over her face in a split second and then vanish into seriousness.

The news photographers followed Rivera as he piled into a car with his kids and ex-wife, Sophia. He hadn't seen or talked to her much since their marriage in prison in the early 90s and subsequent divorce a year later, during his incarceration. But with a fumbling, awkward grace and some small talk, they cut through their ambiguous past, checking the rearview mirror as TV news trucks followed their caravan of cars.

Waiting back at home, Rivera's sister Jeanette ran barefoot from her house to the corner, so she could see the makeshift motorcade driving toward her sister Rose's place.

"He was like the president," Jeanette remembers. "He was like an important person."

The honking and wailing of the caravan crescendoed with the approach. Jeanette ran three houses down to fetch her shoes, scuttling back a third time to wait for her brother on the sidewalk. Emerging from his son's car, Rivera embraced his sister.

"Oh my God, I can't believe it," she said. "You're free. You're here."

Overwhelmed, Rivera choked out the words: "Yep, sis. Yep, sis."


Check out our short doc about the ex-con working to rein in gang violence in Chicago.


Neighbors started popping out of their houses, as though a movie were being shot. An unusual sight, tripods and lights were splayed on the block.

Inside the house, pizza had been delivered. Rivera took only a bite or two, to be polite. He was sweating, and his stomach was cramping into nervous knots as the house packed with people, snapping photos with their smartphones, LED lights ablaze.

They handed him various mobile devices to say hello to old friends.

You sure you don't want a steak or something?

"You could tell in his face," his son Jacques Jr. recalls. "He was like, What am I experiencing?"

A news crew knocked on the door. "Nah, tell 'em to leave me alone," Rivera said.

Back in the family kitchen, Jeanette gave her brother some advice. For starters, he'd need an ID card. She told him to make sure to keep all his receipts this time around. Hanging on to receipts had become a longstanding family joke. What's your alibi? Where you at? What are you doing? Got your receipts?

Then, Jeanette became very serious. "Don't hang around the old block," she told him. "Watch your shoulder. Watch your back." They had lost him once. They didn't want to lose him again.

"I know, I know," Rivera assured her. "I'm a grown man. I can take care of myself."

A look of concern spread across Jeanette's face. "Yeah, but this is the real world. It's like you've been sleeping under a rock, and all of a sudden you've come back to life."

His family didn't want to leave him, but they planned to reconvene for breakfast the following morning. For the time being, Rivera would live with his mother in his sister Rose's loft apartment.

It was time for bed. Rose studied her brother. "To be perfectly honest, he looked homeless," she observed. "He looked frightened, scared. He was out of his element."

They headed up to the small, confined space through the separate double entrance. "Are you going to put bars on the windows?" Rivera asked her. "You know, people can get in these windows here. Are you going to get an alarm system?"

"Jacques, no one is going to get in here," Rose told him. "You are safe here."

Rivera locked the inside door to the double entrance, even though it was made of glass. He figured he would at least hear the shattering noise if someone broke in. Meanwhile, two Chihuahuas, Tigger and Roo, would be on guard as well, yapping if anyone approached the door.

Unable to fall asleep, Rivera pondered finding something to protect himself. He retrieved an instrument, a kitchen butcher knife and, blade in hand, promptly returned to bed.

Alison Flowers is an award-winning investigative journalist who focuses on social and criminal justice. This essay is adapted from her new book, Exoneree Diaries: The Fight for Innocence, Independence, and Identity, available June 7 from Haymarket Books. Follow her on Twitter.