Man Freed in Third Trial For Murder of 10-Year-Old Girl
WHEATON, Ill. (AP) _ A man twice convicted and sentenced to die in the kidnapping and slaying of a 10-year-old girl was freed Friday after a judge acquitted him in his third trial.
The ruling came nine days after the prosecution opened its case against Rolando Cruz, who was imprisoned for 11 years in the 1983 abduction and murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico.
Even before the defense presented its case in the non-jury trial, Circuit Judge Ronald Mehling ruled that the prosecution had failed to prove Cruz guilty. In dismissing the case, he noted that a high-ranking police officer had lied on the witness stand.
``What occurred here today was devastating,″ Mehling said in granting a defense motion to drop the charges. ``This case is finished.″
DuPage County State’s Attorney Anthony Peccarelli said, ``We disagree with the judge’s decision, but we respect it.″
Members of Jeanine’s family broke into tears at the verdict, as did Cruz’s relatives.
``I knew my son was innocent all the time and I knew this day had to come, and had to come soon, but it took so long,″ Cruz’s mother, Dora, said.
``It’s a great day for the system, because it showed that the system can fail miserably for 12 years, but ultimately it can prevail,″ defense lawyer Lawrence Marshall said.
Cruz walked out of the DuPage County Jail in Wheaton, about 25 miles west of Chicago, shortly before 6 p.m.
Juries have twice convicted Cruz, 32, for Jeanine’s murder, both times sentencing him to death though there was neither physical evidence nor witnesses linking him to the crime. Each time, the Illinois Supreme Court overturned the conviction on procedural grounds and ordered new trials.
The tangled case won Cruz the support of law school deans, religious leaders and newspaper columnists. Critics suggested ambitious prosecutors and police were so eager to solve the crime they simply rounded up small-time troublemakers and framed them, then spent the next decade trying to cover up the injustice.
An assistant state attorney general and a sheriff’s detective have quit over the case, saying innocent men were being prosecuted. The police chief said the sheriff’s office ignored evidence that Cruz and another suspect were innocent. Witnesses said authorities bullied them into testifying.
The prosecution contended that Cruz and others broke into the Nicarico house in Naperville, a suburb about 40 miles west of Chicago, found the girl home sick from school and abducted her. Her body was found near a nature trail two days later.
Three men were indicted a year later and tried together: Cruz, Alejandro Hernandez and Stephen Buckley.
Hernandez and Cruz were convicted in 1985 and sentenced to death; the jury deadlocked on Buckley and a judge later dismissed the charges against him.
Later in 1985, another man pleaded guilty to raping and killing a 7-year-old girl and a 27-year-old woman. That man, Brian Dugan, also said he was the sole killer of Jeanine Nicarico.
But Dugan wouldn’t repeat his story in court unless prosecutors guaranteed they wouldn’t seek the death penalty against him. Prosecutors refused to make the deal, saying they didn’t believe him because of inconsistencies in his account.
Hernandez’s second trial ended in a hung jury and his third ended in conviction for murder, kidnapping and sexual assault. Cruz was also convicted of those charges at his second trial.
Peccarelli said the judge’s decision would not stop prosecutors from proceeding with a retrial of Hernandez. A date wasn’t immediately set.
On Friday, Lt. James Montesano told the judge he was on vacation in May 1983, at the time when 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 had made at a pretrial hearing in August.
That alleged statement by Cruz _ not videotaped and not logged in police records _ has been under attack from the beginning. Supporters say he never made it.
``Do you realize what Lt. Montesano said?″ Mehling asked prosecutors. ``It was devastating. He was in charge of the violent crimes unit and he told us that he had lied.″