Rolando Cruz

Rolando Cruz (Photo: Jennifer Linzer)

Rolando Cruz (Photo: Jennifer Linzer)

Police perjury and jailhouse snitch testimony put Rolando Cruz on death row

Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for the 1983 kidnaping, rape, and murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico in DuPage County, Illinois.

Prior to their 1985 trial the lead detective in the case resigned in protest that prosecutors were proceeding against innocent men. Nonetheless, prosecutors continued and won convictions, thanks to the testimony of detectives who falsely claimed that Cruz had told them details of the crime that only the killer would have known.

Shortly after the trial, a repeat sex offender and murderer — Brian Dugan — confessed that he alone had committed the crime, as well as a series of other crimes, including two rape-murders and three rapes. Many of these crimes were similar to the crime for which Cruz and Hernandez were sitting on death row, and several witnesses established conclusively that Dugan was the sole perpetrator in the other crimes he had described.

Although Dugan's confession that he alone killed Jeanine Nicarico was corroborated by overwhelming evidence, prosecutors steadfastly refused to acknowledge that they had put the wrong men on death row. And, after the Illinois Supreme Court reversed the convictions, prosecutors retried Cruz and Hernandez and again won — largely because Dugan's confession and other evidence indicating that he alone had committed the crime was excluded at their trials.

Four years of arduous litigation ensued, culminating in an Illinois Supreme Court decision reversing Cruz's conviction and remanding the case for a third trial. Prior to that trial, advanced DNA testing positively excluded Cruz as the source of biological material recovered from the victim and positively linked Dugan to the crime. Even so, prosecutors refused to drop the case.

At his third trial, however, a high-ranking police officer admitted under oath that Cruz had not made the inculpatory statement attributed to him by detectives at the previous trials. The trial judge then directed a verdict of not guilty. Hernandez's second conviction was reversed a few weeks later, and prosecutors dropped the charges against him.

In the aftermath of the exonerations, a special DuPage County grand jury indicted four sheriff's deputies and three former prosecutors for their roles in the case. Charges included perjury and obstruction of justice. A DuPage County jury acquitted the deputies and prosecutors, but the DuPage County Board later agreed to pay $3.5 million to settle the civil rights claims that Cruz, Hernandez, and Stephen Buckley (a third defendant who had been charged in the crime) had filed in federal court. In December 2002, Cruz received a pardon based on innocence from Illinois Governor George H. Ryan.

In November 2005, a DuPage County grand jury indicted Dugan for the crime — to which he had offered to plead guilty 20 years earlier in exchange for an agreement not to seek the death penalty. Former DuPage County State's Attorney Jim Ryan, who initially had rejected Dugan's offer to plead guilty, apologized to Cruz and Hernandez for their wrongful prosecutions.

In July 2008, Dugan dropped his demand that the prosecution forego seeking a death sentence and entered a blind plea of guilty. He was sentenced to death the following November, and spent the next sixteen months on death row — until March 2011 when Governor Pat Quinn signed legislation abolishing the Illinois death penalty and at the same time commuted the death sentences of Dugan and fourteen other men on death row to life in prison without parole.

Case Summary (pdf)