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Rolando Cruz

Other Illinois DNA Exonerations
On February 23, 1983, 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico disappeared from her home in Naperville, Illinois.  Suffering from the flu, Jeanine was at home alone when she was abducted.  Her body was found two days later.  She had been raped and beaten to death.  The only clue left behind was a boot print on the front door of the home.
A $10,000 reward attracted the attention of Rolando Cruz, a 20-year-old gang member who tried to cash in on the reward by giving false tips to police. Ultimately, police said Cruz gave the police a story–in the form of a dream statement–that they believed implicated Cruz himself. In the process, Alejandro Hernandez and Stephen Buckley were also implicated. On March 8, 1984, on the basis of his statements and other statements by several witnesses, Cruz, Hernandez and Buckley (whose boot print was said to have been found on the door of the Nicarico house) were arrested.  All three were charged with the murder of Jeanine Nicarico, residential burglary, home invasion, aggravated kidnapping, aggravated indecent liberties, deviate sexual assault, and rape.
Before the 1985 trial, the lead detective in the case, John Sam, resigned in protest, because he believed the three men were innocent.  Undaunted, prosecutors pressed ahead, basing their case on a false police claim that Cruz had revealed details of the crime that only a participant would have known, on the testimony of five informants who claimed that Cruz and Hernandez had confessed, on an inculpatory statement Hernandez had made while angling for a reward, and on two erroneous eyewitness identifications of Buckley as the driver of a car that might have been used in the crime. Louise Robbins, a forensic anthropologist at the University of North Carolina, testified that Buckley was the only possible source of the boot print.
The jury found Cruz and Hernandez guilty, but could not reach a verdict on Buckley. Cruz and Hernandez were sentenced to death, and Buckley was held without bond for retrial.  Shortly after the trial a serial killer named Brian Dugan confessed that he alone had committed the crime.  Prosecutors dismissed the charges against Buckley, but steadfastly defended the convictions of Cruz and Hernandez.  On January 19, 1989, their convictions were reversed on appeal because of prejudicial errors by prosecutors and the trial court judge.
Cruz and Hernandez were retried separately and again convicted, largely because much of the evidence proving that Dugan had committed the crime was excluded from consideration.

E. Stephen Tornfeather Towns-end, trainer of the Lake County sheriff’s canine unit, testified that the paths taken by two bloodhounds (“Chuckles” and “Trackula” or “Trackie”) were inconsistent with a one-perpetrator crime and several other aspects of Dugan’s account. Towns-end testified that the two dogs had an “85 percent” success rate. This testimony was used by prosecutors to show that Dugan was lying and that the defendants were guilty.

Cruz was again sentenced to death and Hernandez to 80 years.  Even after DNA testing in 1992 excluded Buckley and Hernandez as sources of biological material recovered from the victim, prosecutors refused to relent. Assistant Attorney General Mary Brigid Kenney, who was assigned to oppose Cruz’s second appeal, sent a memo to Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris identifying numerous errors in the investigation and trial leading to Cruz’s conviction, including “perjured testimony” and “fraudulent investigations by local officials.”  Burris disregarded Kenney’s memorandum, and she resigned in protest.
In 1994, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed Cruz’s conviction and ordered a third trial. The Supreme Court held that the trial judge should have allowed the defense to introduce evidence about five of Dugan's crimes, including the sexual assault and murder of eight-year-old Melissa Ackerman.

Cruz's attorneys had sought to introduce evidence of those crimes to show Dugan's modus operandi was similar to that of Jeanine's killer—that he acted alone, and abducted and assaulted his victims similar to the attack and kidnapping of Jeanine.

The trial court had only allowed the jury to hear only that Dugan was convicted of several sexual assaults and that he murdered Melissa and 27-year-old Donna Schnorr.

That decision, the Supreme Court held, was an abuse of the trial court's discretion. The ruling said that Dugan's accounts of Melissa's and Jeanine's slayings were so similar that Cruz's attorneys should have been able to present the facts to show Dugan's modus operandi.

The facts about the other crimes also should have been admitted to help Cruz's attorneys corroborate Dugan's statements about Jeanine, the ruling said. Dugan had confessed to the five crimes at the same time he said he committed similar acts against Jeanine.

The court also held that the trial judge erroneously allowed the jury to hear evidence concerning the actions of the two bloodhounds. The bloodhounds' trailing showed no connection to Jeanine's abduction. The prosecution had used that testimony to question Dugan's credibility, because the dogs sniffed out different routes than those Dugan said he had taken when he committed the crime. Prosecutors also had argued the scent evidence showed Dugan did not act alone.

Citing a 1914 Illinois Supreme Court decision, the Court ruled that "testimony as to the trailing of either a man or an animal by a bloodhound should never be admitted in evidence in any case."

In 1995, as defense lawyers were preparing for a third trial, Dupage Sheriff's Lieutenant James Montesano testified at a pre-trial hearing that he took a call from two detectives who reported Cruz had made admissions. By the time the third trial started, Montensano had discovered that he was on vacation in Florida on the day in question and could not have taken the phone call from the detectives. Montesano's testimony created a damaging link in the claim that Cruz had made admissions and was a critical factor in the trial court judge acquitting Cruz at the close of the prosecution evidence on November 3, 1995. Cruz was released immediately. Charges against Hernandez were dismissed and he was freed a month after Cruz

In 1996, a DuPage County grand jury indicted the lieutenant, three other DuPage County Sheriff's officers and three former DuPage County prosecutors on charges of conspiracy and obstruction of justice for their conduct in prosecuting the case against Cruz, Hernandez and Buckley. Known as the "DuPage Seven," they were acquitted at trial in 1999.

 Cruz, Hernandez and Buckley brought a civil rights suit, which DuPage County settled for $3.5 million in 2000.  On December 19, 2002, Cruz was issued a full pardon based on innocence.
Charges against Hernandez were dismissed and he was freed a month after Cruz.  Hernandez received $170,000 under the state compensation statute. Cruz received $120,300 under the state compensation statute.
DNA eventually established definitively that Dugan committed the rape and murder of Jeanine Nicarico.  He pleaded guilty and, after a jury hearing, was sentenced to death in 2009.  In March 2011, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed legislation abolishing the Illinois death penalty and commuted the death sentences of Dugan and 14 other men then on death row to life in prison without parole.
Rob Warden

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Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Last Updated: 8/3/2020
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Rape, Kidnapping, Burglary/Unlawful Entry
Reported Crime Date:1983
Age at the date of reported crime:19
Contributing Factors:False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes