A Humboldt Park man convicted of killing a man more than 20 years ago walked out of the Cook County Jail on Tuesday evening and into the arms of family and friends.
Among the first gifts given to Jacques Rivera as a free man: a No. 34 jersey of beloved Bears great Walter Payton.
"I definitely look at life differently. I appreciate it more and I respect life more," the 46-year-old told the crowd gathered outside the jail's gates.
"It's all too common these wrongful convictions that happen to young men such as myself," he said. "After all these years, especially seeing my kids, I thank God."
Rivera was in the process of serving an 80-year sentence for the 1988 slaying of Felix Valentin. Valentin was shot 11 times while in his car and died days later.
The sole witness in the case, a man named Orlando Lopez, later came forward and said he was wrong about what he saw as a 12-year-old boy. Cook County Judge Neera Lall Walsh last month ordered a new trial and prosecutors, having little evidence, dropped their charges.
River said he forgives the witness who ID'd him in a line-up and later recanted.
"I love Orlando Lopez. He was a 12-year-old boy. He was misguided. He was manipulated," Rivera said Tuesday evening.
Family and friends said they were stunned by the turn of events.
"I was afraid someone was going to pinch me and say, 'You're dreaming," said Rivera's mother, Gwen Rivera.
Aiding in his release was Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions, which spent a decade working on the case.
"I thought, 'My goodness, this person should not have been convicted in the first place. Then it took us 10 years to find the eyewitness," said Jane Raley, Rivera's attorney from the Center.
Rivera said he plans on filing a civil suit against the City of Chicago and Cook County, but also plans to work with inner city youth.