Juan Rivera said he considers Jan. 6, 2012 his new birthday.
"It's the beginning of a new life. All I know is prison life and now there's no longer a prison life but a family life. That's what I look forward to," he said shortly after walking out of Stateville Correctional Center on Friday afternoon.
His release was almost two decades in the making. He was convicted in 1992 of a crime prosecutors now say he didn't commit.
"It's a long-awaited experience, you know, to finally show my innocence," he said.
Earlier Friday, the Lake County State's Attorney's Office said it would not challenge an appellate court ruling overturning Rivera's rape and murder conviction.
"I have decided that I will not ask the Illinois Supreme Court to review the appellate court's decision reversing Mr. Rivera's guilty verdict," State's Attorney Michael Waller said in a statement after reviewing the court's assessment.
Rivera in 1992 was convicted in the death of 11-year-old Holly Staker and since then has been serving a life sentence at Stateville Prison in Joliet.
In December, the 2nd District Appellate Court north of Chicago overturned the conviction saying the evidence against Rivera does not go beyond a reasonable doubt.
His attorneys filed a motion for expedited release.
The State's Attorney's Office said it has great respect for the three juries that previously found Rivera guilty.
"I am mindful that for Mr. Rivera and some others, this decision will be viewed as too late in coming," Waller said in a statement. "I am also mindful that for others, including the experienced and dedicated law enforcement officers who investigated this crime and the family of Holly Staker, this decision will be perceived as premature. All I can say is that I believe this is the right decision at this time."
Rivera said he has no resentment and said his focus is now on his loved-ones and making sure Staker's real killer is found.
"It's not just one family that had a tragedy, it was two of us. They need closure as well as we just got closure," he said.
His attorneys continue to push for a change to Illinois law that would allow the use of a process called "familial DNA testing" they say could exonerate others.
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