A Single Hair | New Times Broward-Palm Beach


A Single Hair

Sitting behind steel and glass in a cramped room on Florida's Death Row, Michael Rivera is unable to answer this question to save his life: What can he do to prove he's innocent of killing a little girl? "If I could do that I would have done it already," says the 38-year-old Rivera, who has spent the last 14 years locked in maximum security awaiting death in the electric chair. "That's like me trying to prove to you that God exists."

Rivera, wearing his prison-issue orange jumpsuit and a yarmulke, smiles almost demurely. His soft brown eyes, good humor, and gentle demeanor can be disarming -- even if you're armed with the knowledge that in 1986 he was convicted in Broward County of plucking 11-year-old Staci Jazvac off her bicycle and killing her. Rivera's appearance has surprised people who expected to see a cold-blooded, dirty beast. Court records indicate a potential juror in his 1987 trial said he looked at the accused and thought only, That can't be him.

Any illusion Rivera really doesn't belong behind bars disappears when he describes his life before prison. He speaks of his addiction to crack cocaine, of exposing himself to strangers, of his lust for little girls. His candor can be chilling -- as when he calmly demonstrates the chokehold he used on unsuspecting victims he intended to rape. No wonder he's confined to a six-by-nine-foot cell at Union Correctional Institution in rural Central Florida. No wonder authorities have put steel bars, fences, rolls of razor wire, and armed tower guards between him and the populace.

But he might not belong on Death Row. He swears he didn't kill Staci. And he could be telling the truth.

Rivera has insisted all along that he's a victim of his own fantasies, that confessions during obscene phone calls were a product of his twisted, sexually charged dream life. It's a bizarre explanation, but an analysis of the exceedingly murky case shows the state never proved his guilt. A jury, with no conclusive physical evidence tying Rivera to the murder, convicted him based on a mountain of hearsay, some of it from the mouths of hardened criminals. The trial was a highly publicized, emotional affair, marked by the presence of John Walsh, star of America's Most Wanted, and a courtroom full of children about the victim's age. The judge, who had made damning statements about Rivera before the trial, ruled against the defense at every turn.

Though his appeals have failed, Rivera now has new hope for vindication from a most unlikely place: the Broward Sheriff's Office, which investigated his role in the murder. BSO has come under intense public scrutiny since new DNA analysis showed that the agency helped send an innocent man, Frank Lee Smith, to Death Row, and cajoled false murder confessions from Jerry Frank Townsend, who was freed last month after serving 22 years in prison for a string of killings he didn't commit. For Smith the DNA test came too late -- he died of cancer in prison.

The same investigators -- Richard Scheff, Phil Amabile, and Tom Carney -- who pinned the murder of an eight-year-old girl on Smith in 1985 made the case against Rivera a year later. The state is investigating whether Scheff, who led both investigations and is now the commander of BSO's countywide operations, lied in court to help keep Smith behind bars.

In light of these findings, BSO is reviewing four other Death Row cases in which deputies have determined that new DNA tests can be conducted to determine if the convicted are indeed guilty. Sheriff's officials say they want to make sure no other life-or-death mistake was made. At the top of the list, they say, is Rivera's case, in which a single hair could make all the difference.

Found in a van that Rivera allegedly drove at the time of the murder, the strand was the only piece of physical evidence that tied him to the crime; under a microscope it matched Staci's own sandy blond hair. But that "match" was far from conclusive, as the hair could have come from any number of people.

What the jury never heard is that the van's owner, Mark Peters, swears Rivera didn't have his vehicle at the time of Staci's disappearance. Peters, who has never before spoken to the media about the murder, says he fled town before the trial because he was scared of the BSO detectives.

Peters's contention adds more doubt to what essentially remains a murder mystery that began on January 30, 1986, when Staci disappeared. Rivera calls it his "day of infamy" and insists he's scheduled to be executed by the people of Florida for a crime he didn't commit.