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Nicarico case closes, but fallout to continue
By Joseph Ryan and Christy Gutowski | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 11/11/2009 4:54 PM | Updated: 11/11/2009 4:59 PM

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While the case may be finally closed on the Jeanine Nicarico murder with the death penalty for Brian Dugan, the fallout from years of wrongful convictions for the slaying and allegations of case-fixing is unlikely to rest.

From the very day three innocent men where charged in March of 1984 with the infamous killing, the Nicarico case has been intertwined with Illinois politics and the futures of prominent suburban office holders.

The indictment of Rolando Cruz of Wheaton and Alejandro Hernandez and Stephen Buckley, both of Aurora, came on the eve of a GOP primary for DuPage County State's Attorney.

Jim Ryan won that primary, sidelining incumbent Michael Fitzsimmons, and later winning a general election to take ownership of the Nicarico case, for better or worse.

Twenty-five years later the case has put two innocent men on death row, become a national rallying cry for death penalty reform, seen seven DuPage County law enforcement officials cleared on charges of framing the case and tarnished rising political careers.

"I think it (the political fallout) will continue," says longtime political observer Charles N. Wheeler III, director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield. "This is part of the public record."

Chief among those clouded by the fallout is Ryan, who went on to become Illinois' attorney general after putting Cruz and Hernandez on death row.

Ryan now is running for governor in the GOP primary for a second shot at the state's top post. But Cruz is not far behind him, pledging to remind voters how Ryan put him on death row for a heinous crime he didn't commit.

Just eight months after the first conviction of Cruz and Hernandez in 1985, there were indications Dugan - in custody for two later slayings - could be the real murderer when he told authorities he also killed Nicarico. Prosecutors didn't believe him.

Ryan continued to prosecute Cruz after higher courts threw out the case and even after Dugan confessed to authorities.

"I want Jim Ryan to know I'm still here," said Cruz, now 46 and living in Wisconsin. "If he runs for governor, I'll be right there with him. Every door he knocks on, I'll knock on too."

Ryan, who has always maintained he did nothing wrong, took heat on the prosecution of Cruz in his first run for governor from Democrat Rod Blagojevich. It has yet to come up in his current seven-way GOP primary.

But Ryan isn't the only DuPage County Republican tied to the Nicarico case.

DuPage County State's Attorney Joe Birkett, who has sought higher statewide office twice, also has been attacked politically for his role in the case. Birkett took office in 1996.

In 2002, Birkett lost a race for attorney general and Ryan lost a bid for governor after being attacked on the Nicarico case.

Birkett, who is personally prosecuted the Dugan sentence hearing, backed out of a run for governor or attorney general this year and is instead expected to seek an appellate court judgeship.

The political repercussions have reached across party lines.

Democrat Roland Burris, as Illinois attorney general at the time, ignored pleas from one of his prosecutors to stop opposing an appeal from Cruz as he sat on death row in the early 1990s.

The prosecutor, Mary Brigid Kenney, believed Cruz didn't get a fair trial and was in fact innocent. Burris balked and the prosecutor resigned.

The dispute came to the forefront again when Burris accepted an appointment to the U.S. Senate from Rod Blagojevich. Burris has decided not to seek election to the post.

Others closely involved in the Nicarico case haven't had it stop their local careers. One of the prosecutors charged and cleared over Cruz's wrongful prosecution in what was called the 'DuPage 7' had risen to become DuPage County's chief judge, the now-retired Robert Kilander. Another, Patrick King, has moved on to become a federal prosecutor. Plus, John Kinsella, the lead prosecutor in Cruz's third trial, in which he was acquitted in 1995, also later became a DuPage judge.

But the pursuit for higher office by Birkett and Ryan has drawn considerable attention to case. Many believe that is unlikely to stop even if the real killer is now sentenced to death.

"People would look at the face that they were unwilling to step back and say, 'Maybe we got this wrong,'" says Wheeler of the impact Cruz's convictions can have on a voter's decision. "It makes people wonder. Do you want someone in higher office who doesn't have the capacity to step back and say, 'You know, I may have made mistake.'"