Suspect Freed After 11 Years; Doubts Remain About Tangled Case
CHICAGO (AP) _ It was an end, but not a resolution.
A judge’s acquittal Friday of Rolando Cruz in the abduction, rape and murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico brought to a close more than 11 years of prosecutors’ efforts to send Cruz to the death chamber.
The victim’s parents, Thomas and Patricia Nicarico, listened in stunned silence and left without commenting.
``Right now, I just feel Cruz has gotten away with murder,″ Thomas Nicarico said Saturday from their home in suburban Naperville. ``I don’t know what else to say right now.
``This verdict is not closure for us. ... We know that the victim, Jeanine, is not No. 1 in the courtroom. The defendant is,″ he said.
The legal battle has taken a toll on the Nicaricos, who have sat through a total of five trials between Cruz and co-defendant Alejandro Hernandez.
Hernandez and Cruz both were convicted and sentenced to death twice, only to have their convictions overturned by the Illinois Supreme Court.
State’s attorney Anthony Peccarelli said the decision by Circuit Judge Ronald Mehling would not stop prosecutors from retrying Hernandez, despite the discovery of perjured testimony Friday. The next court date in that case is Nov. 20.
Phone messages left for Cruz’s lawyers were not immediately returned Saturday. On Friday, Cruz told the Chicago Tribune that on his first full day of freedom he planned visit the grave of his father, Robert Cruz, who died while Cruz was in prison.
He also told ABC-TV, ``I’m just happy right now. ... Maybe later I’ll be angry, but not now.″ And on Saturday, he told WGN-TV that he understands Jeanine’s father’s reaction. ``He has a right to be bitter. ... You got to be sad for them. ... They lost a daughter.″
Attorney Frank Wesolowski defended Hernandez during the first trial in 1984 and always felt the defendants were innocent. ``I feel vindicated. ... It’s about time,″ he said.
Jeanine was home sick on Feb. 25, 1983, when the door to her family’s home was kicked in. Her body was found two days later near a nature trail.
Cruz and Hernandez were convicted in a joint trial and sentenced to death in 1984. That jury deadlocked on a third man, Stephen Buckley. Charges against Buckley later were dropped, and the convictions were overturned on procedural grounds.
Cruz was convicted again in 1990 and sentenced to death. After one trial ended in a hung jury, Hernandez was convicted again and sentenced to 80 years in prison in 1991. Those convictions also were overturned.
Investigators at the Nicarico home found little physical evidence _ a tire track outside, a small footprint near a window and a larger footprint on the kicked-in door.
Crime lab reports failed to match a door shoeprint to the defendants and determined the smaller print was made by a woman’s shoe. But when prosecutors brought in outside witnesses to testify that unscientific appraisals of the prints implicated the defendants, investigators from two crime labs changed their stories, Wesolowski said.
``That’s the closest evidence they had to back up a theory that there was more than one person involved,″ Wesolowski said.
The most incriminating evidence offered against Cruz was a statement investigators say he made after the murder. That statement was not videotaped and not logged in police records. Supporters say he never made it.
On Friday, county sheriff’s Lt. James Montesano admitted lying about the statement. Montesano told the judge he was on vacation in May 1983, at the time he previously said a detective told him Cruz knew details of the murder that only the killer could know. Montesano’s testimony directly contradicted statements he made at an earlier hearing.
Another facet to the complex case came when Brian Dugan, who is serving two life sentences for the murders of a 7-year-old girl and a 27-year-old woman, said he alone killed Jeanine.
But Dugan has refused to repeat his story in court unless prosecutors promise not to seek the death penalty. Prosecutors have refused, saying they didn’t believe Dugan because of inconsistencies in his account.
Dugan’s attorney, Thomas McCulloch, said the impact of the Cruz verdict on his client was unclear.
Ed Cisowski, a former state police commander who oversaw an investigation of Dugan’s confession in 1985, said authorities disregarded his report that Dugan was Jeanine’s killer.
Cisowski met Cruz for the first time Friday, at a celebration in honor of Cruz’s release. Cisowski said Cruz thanked him.
``It was a good feeling to see him out, where he belongs,″ Cisowski said Saturday. ``I only hope the Nicaricos gain closure from this. I hope they can understand that Brian Dugan is the perpetrator.″