than to condemn an innocent one.
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.