Jeanine Nicarico was killed more than a quarter century ago, but the impact of her violent death reverberates still.
It forever impacted Illinois' criminal justice system, professional reputations and, most profoundly, those who loved the 10-year-old Naperville girl and can't forget her twin-dimpled smile and girlish giggle.
A DuPage County judge spoke Wednesday of the haunting history of a case that began with wrongful convictions of innocent men as he formally imposed a jury's death sentence for the real killer in the Feb. 25, 1983 crime.
At 53, Brian Dugan becomes the third-oldest man on Illinois' death row. He joins 15 other condemned men, though one of them recently won a new trial.
"In the long history of this case, the wheels of justice for Jeanine have often been derailed but, each time, those wheels pursuing justice have been put back on track," Circuit Judge George Bakalis said, "and they have finally reached their destination.
"No verdict will ever compensate the Nicarico family for their loss or for the torment that the legal system has repeatedly subjected them to over the years, but the verdict hopefully brings some sense of closure to them."
A bearded Dugan, under heavy guard, did not outwardly react after Bakalis denied the defense team's eleventh-hour attempts to reverse the death sentence and glean a new sentencing hearing.
The jury initially signed off on a "life" verdict form late Nov. 10 after two members remained undecided after six hours of deliberations but, while they waited to return to the courtroom, one of the panelists asked for more time. Members were sequestered overnight in a local hotel.
That next day, after five more hours of deliberations, all 12 jurors reached the unanimous decision that the death penalty was appropriate. Two of them, Pat Armstrong and Sue Grbic, who was the juror who sought more time to deliberate, came to court Wednesday.
"I think the decision was right," Grbic said. "I think we all did the right thing. Hopefully, it will give (the families) the closure they deserve."
The defense team, led by attorney Steven Greenberg, argued the initial signed "life" verdict should stand. Bakalis said a jury verdict is not final until members return to court, their signed form is reviewed by a judge to ensure it is in proper order, and it is then entered into the official record.
Bakalis set a preliminary Feb. 25 execution date, but it will be stayed as Dugan exhausts his appeal rights. The process can stretch as long as a decade.
Kathy Nicarico, the middle of three girls, said her family will continue its long fight to ensure Jeanine gets justice. The Nicaricos support the death penalty.
"I think the judge, like the jury, has taken time making decisions very cautiously and carefully so (Dugan's) rights were upheld," she said. "But, at the end of the day, Jeanine was murdered and someone has to pay."
Added sister Chris Nicarico: "You have to remember the other victims. There were so many people that were affected by his games."
Dugan has been serving life prison terms since 1985 for a series of sex attacks on women who survived and two other murders - nurse Donna Schnorr, 27, of Geneva, in 1984 and 7-year-old Missy Ackerman, of Somonauk, in 1985.
He long ago offered to plead guilty to Jeanine's abduction, rape and fatal bludgeoning if prosecutors spared his life. They refused. Meanwhile, two other men spent years on death row before their eventual 1995 exonerations. One of them, Rolando Cruz, became the poster boy for the failings of Illinois' capital punishment system. Seven of the DuPage County law enforcement officials involved in his prosecution were indicted on charges they tried to railroad Cruz, but a jury acquitted the men in 1999.
Former Gov. George Ryan cited the Nicarico case when he imposed a moratorium on executions in 2000 and later commuted all death sentences to life prison terms. Despite the unofficial moratorium, the death penalty remains Illinois law. The last state execution was carried out in March 1999 for a Villa Park man involved in the cultlike mutilation sex slayings of several women in Cook and DuPage.
DuPage State's Attorney Joseph Birkett cited improved DNA technology when he indicted Dugan Nov. 29, 2005 for Jeanine's slaying.
Dugan pleaded guilty July 28, 2009 with the hope his jury might spare his life because he accepted responsibility. His arduous six-week sentencing hearing ended last month in a death verdict.
Greenberg said while the two-verdict-form issue is unchartered legal territory, he is appealing to a higher court for final decision. Bakalis also rejected a 22-page defense motion for a new sentencing hearing based on 107 points of error Dugan's attorneys allege were made during the six-week sentencing proceeding.
Greenberg argued he is "99 percent confident" reversible trial errors were made, but Birkett said Dugan received a fair trial and more than earned his punishment.
"Brian Dugan is heading where he belongs - to death row - where his death will occur not on his own terms, but on society's terms. The wheels of justice came off many times, as the judge said, and many mistakes were made in the past ... but we stayed the course, drew a line in the sand and got it right."