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Man Cleared by DNA Seeks Formal Pardon

November 17, 2002|From Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — 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.

The girl's family is objecting, however, saying they believe he was involved in the crime.

Rolando Cruz was twice convicted of abducting, raping and killing Jeanine Nicarico, 10. At a third trial 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 of Illinois.

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

But some prosecutors and the family of Jeanine, who was abducted from her Naperville home in 1983, 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," said Pat Nicarico, Jeanine's mother. "What a disgrace," she told the board. "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, said DNA tests show that Brian Dugan raped Jeanine.

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

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