Nicarico case was beginning of the end for Illinois death penalty

SHARE Nicarico case was beginning of the end for Illinois death penalty
SHARE Nicarico case was beginning of the end for Illinois death penalty

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn speaks with reporters in his office after signing legislation abolishing the death penalty in Illinois at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield on March 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

Thirty years ago today, 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico was abducted from her home in unincorporated Naperville and murdered. A year later, three men were indicted for the crime, starting a long legal battle that ended not only in freeing the men but also to the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois.

Back in 1983, few people believed it was possible that innocent men could be condemned to death in Illinois. Although some people raised doubts about the prosecution of the case early on, no one paid much attention.

In February, 1985, a DuPage County jury convicted two Aurora men, Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez, of abducting, raping and murdering Jeanine. The jury couldn’t reach a verdict on a third Aurora man, Stephen Buckley.

Before a new trial for Buckley began, however, another little girl, Melissa Ackerman, 7, of Somonauk, was murdered. Police arrested career criminal Brian Dugan, who eventually admitted he murdered Melissa – and Jeanine as well.

For a long time, authorities refused to credit Dugan’s claim that he was the real murderer. but over the years more evidence, including DNA, continued to point to Dugan while the case against Cruz, Hernandez and Buckley crumbled away as piece after piece of the evidence used against them turned out to be unfounded. Eventually, the original defendants were exonerated and Dugan was convicted. Dugan is serving a life sentence without parole.

Seeing Cruz and Hernandez sentenced to death on evidence that in retrospect was surprisingly flimsy encouraged lawyers and judges in other cases to be more open to the possibility that even in a major death penalty case, justice could go off the rails. A succession of Death Row exonerations followed.

In January, 2000, then-Gov. George Ryan commuted the death sentences of all those on Death Row to life in prison, saying he couldn’t be sure who was guilty. A moratorium on executions stood until March, 2011, when Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation abolishing the death penalty.

Among the other men freed from Death Row in the first few years after Cruz and Hernandez were:

Dennis Williams and Verneal Jimerson, two of the so-called Ford Heights Four. All charges were dropped on July 2, 1996.

That same month, prosecutors said they wouldn’t retry the case of a Downstate man, Joseph Burrows, whom the Supreme Court ruled never should have been convicted.

In October, 1996, Gary Gauger, walked out of prison after the Illinois Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision to overturn his conviction for the murder of his elderly parents.

In December 1996, Carl Lawson was freed after he was acquitted at his third trial.

In 1999, Steven Smith was freed after the Illinois reversed his conviction, saying there wasn’t enough evidence.

In May 1999, charges were dropped again Ronald Jones after a DNA test cleared him.

Also in 1999, Anthony Porter was freed after coming within 50 hours of execution.

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