Jim Ryan's role in Nicarico case won't go away
The words on the press release were so moist with sarcasm they all but turned the paper translucent: Gov. George Ryan, they said, "welcomes the attorney general's newfound concern for fairness and justice."
The release Tuesday from Ryan's office was in response to suits Atty. Gen. Jim Ryan filed earlier in the day asking the courts to halt a hurry-up series of clemency hearings next month for approximately 160 inmates on Illinois' Death Row. The governor has said he's considering commuting all death sentences to life without parole. The attorney general, who is running for governor in November's election, said such a move would be unfair to the victims' families and violate the law.
Those who follow the death-penalty issue in Illinois knew immediately what George Ryan's dripping words were referring to: the leading role Jim Ryan played in prosecuting Rolando Cruz and Alex Hernandez, landmark miscarriages of capital justice in the litany that two years ago led George Ryan to declare a moratorium on executions.
It ought to be just an old story by now.
After all, it was February 1983--nearly 20 years ago--when 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico was abducted in the middle of day from her home in unincorporated Naperville, raped and bludgeoned to death. Jim Ryan, then the state's attorney of DuPage County, oversaw the 1985 trial in which Cruz and Hernandez were convicted on dubious evidence and sent to Death Row.
What kept the story alive was that a few months after the convictions, an Aurora man, Brian Dugan, was arrested in LaSalle County and charged with the abduction, rape and murder of a 7-year-old girl. As part of his negotiations with prosecutors, Dugan offered to confess not only to perpetrating that crime alone, but also several others, including the Nicarico murder.
And the story remains fresh even today because of what happened next.
Jim Ryan turned all the efforts of his office into destroying Dugan's credibility and supporting what many even in law enforcement were recognizing as a false, flimsy conviction.
The crime fit Dugan's MO, his employment records showed he had skipped work the day Jeanine was kidnapped, he resembled a lone white man seen in the area and his car was similar to the car that had been seen near where Jeanine's body had been found. An Illinois State Police task force performed an exhaustive investigation into Dugan's statement and concluded, with 100 percent certainty, that he was telling the truth.
Yet Jim Ryan used every legal and public-relations trick he knew to suppress the fact that DuPage authorities had somehow sent a pair of handy scapegoats off to die for a crime that another man had committed. He attacked the state police investigators, successfully persuaded a judge to keep much of the Dugan evidence out of retrials for Cruz and Hernandez and enlisted the aid of prison snitches to win new convictions. He played politics with justice.
"The best indication of what somebody's going to do in the future is what they've done in the past." That's not critics talking. That's Jim Ryan's spokesman Dan Curry, speaking in a different context Tuesday during an appearance on WTTW-Ch. 11's "Chicago Tonight" program.
All Ryan had to do in 1985 was say, "My office made a mistake and we'll get to the bottom of it."
But instead and ever since, he and his mouthpieces have been saying that he made the right decisions based on the evidence at the time and that the evidence changed after he was elected attorney general in 1994. But by late 1985 the evidence of the innocence of Cruz and Hernandez was powerful--it's outlined in the petition for executive clemency Cruz's attorneys filed Wednesday and is on the Web at ericzorn.com--and the only real change was a 1995 advanced DNA test of semen found in the victim that excluded Cruz and put Dugan in the 0.03 percent of the Caucasian population who could have been the source.
Cruz was acquitted at a 1995 retrial, and DuPage shortly thereafter dropped charges against Hernandez. At the time, the Tribune editorialized: "None of those involved in the Cruz prosecution deserves ever again to enjoy a position of public honor or trust."
Jim Ryan has never apologized for or explained in depth his role
in the travesty. Until he does, each new statement he makes invoking justice
automatically revives the story and invites responses that should be handled
with rubber gloves.