The disparate imposition of the death sentence

Published: 11/15/2009 7:16 AM

Sixteen killers await execution on Illinois' death row. Brian Dugan, the brutal nightmare who savaged 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico of Naperville among several others, is the latest, sentenced last week in the most recent phase of DuPage County's quest for justice.

Who among us could argue that after the crimes he committed, Dugan's lungs are worthy of the same air we breathe?

His crime stole almost an entire lifetime from an innocent girl, but not just that, it cost untold horror in her final hours, sentenced her family to inescapable grief and anguish. Her tragedy was not the only horror he bestowed, nor the only life he stole. And as psychologists testified, Dugan committed these atrocities with barely any emotion or remorse.

Talking to authorities, Dugan himself acknowledged years ago he had no right to live.

Who among us could disagree?

Capital punishment is a heavy and enigmatic tool of justice. We are not, by rule, reflexively opposed to it. There are certain crimes that seem so heinous, so offensive to the human senses, that it is hard to say justice is done without the eye being taken for the eye. And yet, for all its reforms, something disturbing and imperfect still haunts its implementation.

Consider the dispositions of some of the Chicago suburbs' most horrific crimes.

• In December 1978, Des Plaines 15-year-old Robert Piest disappeared on his mother's birthday after heading out to meet John Wayne Gacy about a contracting job. Piest became Gacy's 33rd and final victim. Ranging in ages from 14 to 22, most were sexually assaulted and tortured before they were killed, usually to be buried in the crawl space of his Norwood Park Township home. Gacy was sentenced to death. It was 14 more years before he was executed.

• In February 1983, Jeanine Nicarico was abducted from her home in Naperville, then raped and bludgeoned to death. Rolando Cruz of Wheaton was twice convicted and sentenced to death for the crime; Alejandro Hernandez of Aurora was convicted once and sentenced to death as well. After their ultimate exonerations, prosecutors turned to Dugan, who had offered in the mid-1980s to confess as part of a plea deal. With charges finally brought against him, Dugan pleaded guilty this summer without any sentencing agreement. Last week, a jury sentenced him to death.

• In January 1993, seven employees of a Brown's Chicken & Pasta restaurant were herded into a food locker during an armed robbery at closing and shot to death in a scene so terrifying that one of them vomited before his slaying. Two men finally were arrested. First Juan Luna in 2007 and then James Degorski this year were convicted. Each was sentenced to life in prison when their juries could not reach unanimous agreement on a death sentence.

• In November 1995, Fedell Caffey, 22, of Schaumburg shot pregnant Debra Evans in her apartment in Addison when she would not agree to sell her baby to former boyfriend Laverne Ward of Wheaton. Caffey and Ward then stabbed her 10-year-old daughter Samantha to death, and using scissors, cut Debra Evans' unborn baby from her womb. In the next 24 hours, they and Caffey's girlfriend Jacqueline Williams twice tried to kill Debra's 8-year-old son Joshua before finally cutting his throat in a third attempt and leaving the body in an alley. The three were arrested and convicted. Ward received a life sentence. Williams and Caffey were sentenced to death but their sentences later were reduced to life in prison as part of former Gov. George Ryan's blanket commutation of death row.

Four horrific cases, each involving unconscionable killers whose cold brutality surpasses our understanding.

Who among us can say that one deserves death while another merits life?

Who can deny that in these cases the difference between death and life comes down, frankly, to luck? One defendant drew a "good" jury and one did not. One defendant drew fortunate timing and one did not.

The answer is amorphous and troubling. The question is equally troubling, but clear: Who among us can say that this is equal and evenhanded justice?