The Wrong Man

The prospect that innocent people will be executed in America is horrifyingly likely, the author argues in this unsparing report on the criminal-justice system. Police officers and prosecutors have suppressed evidence. Many public defenders are incompetent. And the appeals process is becoming more difficult
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(The online version of this article appears in four parts. Click here to go to parts two, three, and four.)

It is better to risk saving a guilty person
than to condemn an innocent one.
                      --Voltaire


Photograph by Loren Santow/Impact Visuals  ROLANDO CRUZ
  Sentenced to death: March 15, 1985.
  Freed: November 3, 1995. Cruz was
  convicted of the 1983 rape and
   murder of ten-year-old Jeanine
   Nicarico. Another man later
   confessed to the crime, but the
   confession was ignored. Cruz
   was released after a third trial found
   him not guilty. The murder remains
  officially unsolved.

ON the afternoon of February 25, 1983, a sunny, dimple-cheeked little girl named Jeanine Nicarico reportedly heard a knock on the front door of the comfortable split-level house where she, her two older sisters, and their parents lived in Naperville, a Chicago suburb. The ten-year-old, home from school with the flu, listened through the door as a man said his car had broken down and he needed help. Jeanine, dressed in a nightgown picturing one of Snow White's dwarfs, with the words "I'm Sleepy," told him she was all alone and couldn't let him in. The man kicked in the front door, carried Jeanine to an upstairs bedroom, wrapped her in a sheet, and taped a towel around her eyes. Her body was discovered forty-eight hours later, less than two miles from the house. An autopsy revealed that she had been sodomized and that her skull had been crushed by a blunt instrument.

The Nicarico murder is every parent's worst nightmare, one that Thomas and Patricia Nicarico have lived with for the past sixteen years. It's the kind of case that leads 75 percent of Americans to support the death penalty. For nearly as many years Rolando Cruz has lived with another kind of nightmare. On February 22, 1985, Cruz was convicted of murder, rape, deviant sexual assault, kidnapping, and burglary in the Jeanine Nicarico murder trial. Despite the fact that the police found no physical evidence linking him to the victim, a judge sentenced Cruz to die by lethal injection. Because of a prosecutorial error, the Illinois Supreme Court ordered a second trial for Cruz, and in February of 1990 he was again found guilty and sentenced to death. That verdict was overturned in 1994. Then, on November 3, 1995, as a third trial got under way, one of the police officers who had provided critical evidence against Cruz acknowledged that he had lied under oath. The judge ordered a directed verdict of not guilty, and Rolando Cruz, having spent nearly twelve years in jail, was a free man.


The policeman's revelation alone didn't prove that Cruz was not guilty, but by then the state's case was a shambles. DNA evidence had all but eliminated Cruz as a suspect in the rape, and implicated another man, Brian Dugan, who, astonishingly, had claimed ten years earlier that he raped and killed Jeanine Nicarico. Dugan had also confessed to five other vicious crimes, including the rape and murder of a seven-year-old girl. Those confessions were credible enough for prosecutors in nearby Kane and LaSalle Counties, who used them to win Dugan's conviction and two consecutive life terms without parole. But the state attorney for DuPage County, James Ryan, now the Illinois attorney general, was convinced that Dugan was lying, and Illinois prosecutors fought for another decade to keep Dugan's testimony out of court while they tried Cruz twice more. They continued with their case despite the resignation of one of their own detectives, who was so certain of the state's error that he had offered to testify for the defense in Cruz's first trial. And they pressed on even after an assistant attorney general, too, resigned, protesting that the state was attempting to execute an innocent man. To date the Nicarico murder remains officially unsolved.

"The Worst Kind of Mistake"

WHY prosecutors were so zealous in their pursuit of Cruz has been a matter of considerable speculation. Clearly, there was enormous public and political pressure on the state attorney's office to solve the highly publicized Nicarico case; it is quite possible that the police and prosecutors became convinced of Cruz's guilt before they had accumulated the facts to prove it, and then stuck with their hunch even as the holes in their case multiplied. Short of unimpeachable exculpatory evidence, prosecutors are loath to back away from an indictment, much less a conviction. No doubt Cruz shares responsibility for his lengthy ordeal, because he foolishly sought to sell the police a fabricated story about the murder in exchange for a $10,000 reward, thereby injecting himself into a situation he might otherwise have avoided. If law-enforcement officials had any doubt about Cruz's guilt, it presumably evaporated with the jury's guilty verdict in the defendant's first trial. When that verdict was set aside, prosecutors probably satisfied themselves that the court's decision turned on nothing more than a technicality. By the time Cruz's third trial rolled around, even the exculpatory DNA evidence was insufficient to shake the prosecution's belief in the rightness of its cause. Even today the leading prosecutors and police officers in the Cruz case insist that he was involved in the crime.

If Rolando Cruz were the only person ever mistakenly condemned to death in the United States, one could find any number of ways to explain his case away. But since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, in 1976, more than eighty death-row inmates have been freed from prison, their convictions overturned by evidence of innocence. That may not sound like many, given the huge U.S. prison population, but it is more than one percent of the 6,000 men and women who were sentenced to death in that same period, and equal to almost 15 percent of those actually executed -- not good odds for the defendants, given the stakes. The reasons for these miscarriages of justice range from simple police and prosecutorial error to the most outrageous misconduct, such as the framing of innocent people, and everything in between: perjured testimony, erroneous eyewitness testimony, false confessions (including the confessions of innocent defendants), racial bias, incompetent defense counsel, and overzealous police officers and prosecutors who may or may not genuinely believe they have the perpetrator of a heinous crime. Taken together, these miscarriages are not only shocking but also a powerful indictment of the way our criminal-justice system operates, particularly with regard to those at the margins of American society. Although we have no way of knowing how many innocent people remain on death row, or how many are serving life or other lengthy prison sentences for crimes they didn't commit, surely the number of innocent people discovered and freed from prison is only a small fraction of those still incarcerated. The other unanswered question is, of course, how many, if any, innocent people have actually been put to death.

Opponents of the death penalty believe that the execution of an innocent person would have a profound impact on public support for capital punishment. In England several wrongful executions played a crucial role in the decision, in 1964, to abolish the death penalty for murder. The execution of an innocent man in Michigan led to abolition in that state in 1846. Death-penalty supporters in this country have invested considerable energy in reassuring the public that the execution of an innocent person is virtually impossible. William G. Otis, formerly a special counsel to President George Bush and now an adjunct professor of law at George Mason University, in Virginia, says, "The administration of the death penalty ought to be, and in my view in fact is, surrounded with the most elaborate and exacting sort of safeguards of any decision that the government makes, and properly so." Paul G. Cassell, a professor of law at the University of Utah and a leading advocate of capital punishment, is even more categorical. "There is no documented case,"he says, "of a factually innocent person who has been executed for at least the last fifty years." Ironically, it is the safeguards Otis refers to -- the often time-consuming constitutional and legal challenges to convictions and death sentences -- that death-penalty supporters have successfully undermined during the past decade, thereby increasing the likelihood of executing an innocent person.

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