The Murder of Jeanine Nicarico

As I stated in the blog about Robert Anthony Buell, this case is similar in nature, however, in this case two innocent men were sent to death row. This case was cited by then Governor George Ryan as one of the main reasons that when he left office in 2003 he commuted all death sentences in Illinois. For the next eight years the state of Illinois would sentence fifteen more people to death row, including the true perpetrator in this case, but in 2011 the death penalty was officially abolished and once again those sentences were commuted to life without parole. This is also a case in which prosecutors and investigators would later face charges of their own for misconduct in the pursuit and prosecution of three men.

On February 25, 1983 ten year old Jeanine Nicarico remained home from school alone suffering from the flu. I know, I know, today this would likely be unheard of but in 1983 everyone felt safe, especially in the town of Napersville Illinois and telephone calls were often suffice to ensure the child was okay. It was clear when authorities arrived that the home had been burglarized but it was not clear where Jeanine was. Her body would be found two days later within a few miles of her home. She had been raped, sodomized and murdered. While DNA was not around at that point it does appear that forensic evidence was taken from the body. However, it is not clear when that evidence was tested.

In March of 1984 three men were indicted by a grand jury and arrested. They were Rolando Cruz, Alejandro Hernandez and Stephen Buckley. Rolando was said to be a former gang member and investigators claimed who had confessed. For his part Rolando would claim that he had fabricated a story in attempts to receive a $10,000 reward that was offered. This is where things get a bit confusing however. It is not clear whether Hernandez did the same thing (made up a story to obtain the reward) or whether Rolando had implicated both Hernandez and Buckley in his story. But, it does appear that once Rolando figured out that investigators believed he was the perpetrator that he immediately recanted his statements. In addition to this Rolando claims he never confessed to the crime. It seems that investigators never taped the alleged confession either through audio or video nor did any investigator ever even write the confession down on paper. They simply testified to such at the trials that were conducted. The lead investigator on the case, John Sam resigned before the trial began claiming he believed the men to be innocent and would not participate in the continued prosecution of the men.

In February of 1985 all three men had a joint trial. Cruz and Hernandez were found guilty and both were sentenced to death. The jury was unable to agree on a verdict against Stephen Buckley despite the fact that according to the investigators the only real evidence found at the scene was a boot print on the front door that they alleged came from Buckley. The prosecution had argued, through investigators, that Rolando had related things that only the killer would have known. It was said that “five informants” claimed that both Cruz and Hernandez had confessed to the crime. Whether those “informants” were jail inmates or had legal issues of their own they wanted resolved is unclear. It was also said that two witnesses claimed to identify Buckley as the driver of a car that prosecutors alleged was used in the crime. Buckley would sit in jail without bond for the next two years awaiting a new trial when in 1987 prosecutors dropped the charges against him. Cruz and Hernandez had been convicted on charges or murder, rape, kidnapping, deviant sexual assault, aggravated indecencies with a child, residential burglary, criminal sexual abuse and aggravated criminal sexual abuse.

In late 1985 a man by the name of Brian Dugan was back in prison, a place that was almost a second home to him. This time he was accused of killing a twenty-seven year old woman named Donna Schnoor and a seven year old girl named Melissa Ackerman. While attempting to obtain a deal with the prosecutors Dugan had confessed to the murder of Jeanine Nicarico. According to Dugan prosecutors did not want to accept his confession because they already had the convictions against Cruz and Hernandez.

On January 19, 1988 (although some reports say it was 1989), the Illinois Supreme Court overturned the convictions against both Cruz and Hernandez citing the fact that they had not been given separate trials. By this time it appears that prosecutors and investigators were well aware of Dugan's confession but despite that the prosecutors insisted on re-trying the two men. It has been said that first investigators attempted to hide evidence that Brian Dugan had confessed but at some point through the entire process (whether it was after the first trial, or after the second is unclear) they came up with a theory that Cruz and Hernandez were Brian Dugan's accomplices in the crime. And yet still Dugan was not charged in the murder.

Although I found what was considered to be a timeline of events in the case some of them, such as the date of the first time the convictions were overturned, do not always seem to add up correctly. From the best that I can gather at the time of Cruz's second trial a man by the name of Roland Burris was Attorney General in the state. He had decided to run for Governor in the next election. For the record Burris did run and lost the race along with two other attempts that were made. Burris assigned the case to a woman named Mary Kenney. Like the lead investigator before Cruz's first trial, Kenney believed that Cruz was innocent and claimed she felt that he was a victim of “prosecutorial misconduct.” She refused the argued the case and resigned her position. In February of 1990 Rolando Cruz was once again convicted and sentenced to death. In May of that year Hernandez was put on trial but his jury could not agree on a verdict so he went on trial again in May of 1991. Once again Hernandez was convicted but this time instead of a death sentence he was given life without parole.

In July of 1994 the Illinois Supreme Court once again overturned Rolando Cruz's conviction. This time it was based on the fact that the court had refused to allow evidence of Brian Dugan's confession to be entered. The courts ordered that this had compromised his defense and that it would have been up to the jury to decide which side to believe. Then in January of 1995 Hernandez's conviction was overturned. In November of 1995 Cruz once again went on trial. This time he was acquitted when a police office got on the stand and reversed his testimony about Cruz's alleged confession. That same month charges were dropped against Hernandez. And yet, still Brian Dugan sat in jail and never charged in the murder of Jeanine Nicarico.

Keep in mind that during the more than ten years that the prosecutors conducted these four trials, and at some point were preparing for at least two more, of these three men, they were assuring Jeanine's parents they had the right perpetrators. It seems unlikely that her parents had not been made aware of Brian Dugan's confession at least at some point since it had apparently been common knowledge for several years. That being said I am confident in believing that they were likely told by the prosecutors not to worry about that confession and kept reassuring them Cruz and Hernandez were the right people. For them every time they thought things would settle the courts would overturn the conviction and a new trial would be set and a whole new ordeal for them to go through. Then, in the end all three men that they were told in 1984 had murdered their daughter were free.

By December of 1996 three prosecutors and four sheriff deputies were indicted on charges of unlawful arrest and conspiracy charges in the prosecution against Cruz. In June of 1999 the “Dupage Seven” (named after the county) were acquitted. This should be of no surprise to anyone, even in the 1990's. How many times have we seen a police officer or even more rarely a prosecutor, be charged for crimes committed relating to their jobs and then be acquitted? We saw it in the Rodney King beating trial and as of late it seems every few months another officer is being found “not guilty” on charges of reckless murder that occurred during an arrest, chase or traffic stop. Even in today's age where there is almost always a video of some sort of the incident do we see a conviction.

Now, I mentioned earlier that forensic evidence was taken from the crime scene but that I was unclear when any testing was done. It does appear that by 1992, before Rolando Cruz's third trial that DNA testing had been done and was said to exclude both Cruz and Hernandez as sources. But, it does not appear that the same evidence was ran against Dugan's DNA at the time. What this means however is that this information was available before prosecutors were preparing to take them both back to trial for a third time. It was said though that eventually it was linked to Dugan but from my understanding even that did not happen until around 2005 when Dugan was finally charged with the murder.

Despite confessing to the murder in November of 1985 it was not until July of 2009 that Brian Dugan pleaded guilty in the murder of Jeanine Nicarico. A jury was sat for a sentencing hearing on the case. After ten hours of deliberations, last over two days the jury gave Brian Dugan the death penalty. In 2011 that sentence was commuted to life without parole. He remains imprisoned today.

In September of 2000 Rolando Cruz, Alejandro Hernandez and Stephen Buckley were awarded 3.5 million dollars in a civil suit they had filed for wrongful prosecution.


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