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Man freed after serving 21 years for murder after witness recants

Jacques Rivercovers his eyes as he walks freedom. Riverwas given new trial for 1988 murder after sole witness said he

Jacques Rivera covers his eyes as he walks to freedom. Rivera was given a new trial for a 1988 murder after the sole witness said he fingered the wrong guy. Prosecutors dropped the charges and Rivera is released from Cook County Jail on Tuesday, October 4, 2011 in Chicago. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 15, 2011 12:57PM

Jacques Rivera wasn’t thinking about his cozy bed or favorite breakfast cereal when he walked out of Cook County Jail a free man Tuesday night.

“I just want to go to church,” said the Humboldt Park man after serving 21 years in prison for a gang-related murder that he emphasized he did not commit. “That’s all I got to do.”

Prosecutors on Tuesday dropped murder charges against Rivera, 46, telling Judge Neera Lall Walsh they had no intentions of retrying him for Felix Valentin’s 1988 slaying. Last month, Walsh ordered a new trial for Rivera after the sole witness — who was 12 at the time of the fatal shooting — admitted he helped send the wrong man to prison.

“Mr. Rivera, you’re released,” Walsh told him — just like the smiling female judge he saw in a dream in his jail cell a few nights ago, friends said.

Rivera sobbed loudly and hugged his mother and three adult children, Jacques Jr., 28; Richard, 27, and Jennifer, 23. Jennifer was only four months old when he was arrested.

“It’s good to see me for than two hours, right?” Richard Rivera said, recalling their brief visits at the Stateville Correctional Center.

Gwen Rivera, anticipating her son’s release, spent the last few weeks fixing his old bedroom and buying his favorite foods.

She sat on a lawn chair, waiting for more than five hours to embrace her son.

“I think somebody’s going to pinch me and say, ‘You’re dreaming,’ but it’s a dream come true,” she said.

Rivera, who was serving an 80-year sentence for Valentin’s murder, said he wants to help reduce street violence.

Although he missed being a father, he said he had no hard feelings against witness Orlando Lopez and the officers who testified against him.

“I’m not going to let bitterness rule my life,” he said.

But he also told reporters, “You know what’s coming next? Civil suit.”

Lopez “made a mistake,” said Rivera’s lawyer, Jane Raley, of Northwestern University Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions.

Lopez saw the real shooter a week after he identified Rivera as the killer and told detectives, but they didn’t believe him and thought he was recanting because he was afraid of gang retaliation, Raley said.

Valentin had identified two other men as involved in his killing before he died.

“I didn’t kill that young man, and that’s the bottom line,” Rivera said.

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