Cleared death row inmate seeks pardon

SPRINGFIELD, Illinois (AP) -- In a case that became a national symbol of a flawed justice system, a man who was exonerated after spending seven years on death row for the rape and murder of a little girl has asked for a formal pardon.

However, the little girl's family is objecting, saying they still believe he was involved in the crime.

Rolando Cruz was twice convicted of abducting, raping and killing 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico. At a third trial, though, he was acquitted after a police officer changed his story about an incriminating statement Cruz supposedly made.

DNA evidence later pointed to someone else as the rapist.

Cruz was freed after spending 11 years in prison -- seven of them on death row. On Friday, he formally asked the Prisoner Review Board to clear his name, a step that would let him seek about $100,000 in compensation from the state.

"He is innocent. That's what we're here about," Cruz's attorney, Lawrence Marshall of Northwestern University, told the Prisoner Review Board. "He's been tormented."

But some prosecutors and the family of Jeanine Nicarico, who was abducted from her Naperville home in 1983, raped and killed, still believe Cruz had something to do with the child's death.

"With all the evidence we have seen and heard, we are convinced beyond any doubt that Rolando Cruz was involved in our little girl's kidnapping and murder," Pat Nicarico, the girl's mother, tearfully told the board.

"What a disgrace," she said. "To me, this is a miscarriage of justice."

The case put Illinois' death penalty system in the national spotlight. Cruz is one of 13 people sent to death row but later found to have been wrongly convicted. That led Gov. George Ryan to halt executions in Illinois nearly three years ago and to propose an overhaul of the death penalty system.

The Cruz case even became an issue in the races for governor and attorney general because the Republican nominees -- Jim Ryan and Joe Birkett -- helped prosecute him. Neither candidate would discuss the case in detail, simply saying they accepted the court's finding.

In documents filed with the board, Birkett, the DuPage County state's attorney, says recent DNA testing shows more clearly than ever that Brian Dugan, not Cruz, raped Nicarico.

Dugan, 46, has confessed to the crime and has said he committed it alone. Dugan has never been charged in the child's death but is serving a life term for unrelated murders.

Birkett did not formally object to Cruz's request for a pardon. But James Sotos, a special prosecutor working for the county, spent more than an hour listing reasons to be suspicious of Cruz and told the board "he's conning you."

Cruz and two others who had been convicted of the crime sued DuPage County and settled for a total of $3.5 million. Seven prosecutors and police officers were charged with lying and making up evidence but were acquitted.

Stephen Pecoraro, a jailhouse informant who testified against Cruz, told the board that a detective bullied him into lying.

"I thought he was guilty. Everybody told me he was. If he was guilty, he should die -- that's the way I feel," Pecoraro said. "I tried my damnedest to get him the death penalty because I believed the police. They lied to me."

Cruz attended Friday's board meeting but did not speak.

The review board hears clemency requests and then makes confidential recommendations to the governor, who has the final decision on whether to grant pardons. Ryan said Friday night that he will not make up his mind until he gets the board's report.

Back to home page