The Frame Game

  • Share
  • Read Later
It was the kind of crime that breaks a community's heart. Ten-year-old Jeanine Nicarico, home from school with a cold, was taken from her suburban Chicago house in broad daylight, raped and killed. Her badly beaten body was discovered two days later in a wooded area six miles away. The public demanded that the murder be solved, and the police obliged. Du Page County residents slept a little better after police arrested Rolando Cruz, a street tough from a nearby town. Local prosecutors finished the job, presenting a solid case that landed Cruz on Illinois' death row.

The only trouble was that Cruz didn't kill Jeanine Nicarico. A sheriff's officer later admitted that he testified inaccurately about a key piece of evidence used at Cruz's trial. Cruz was freed in 1995, after 11 years in jail. Another man--a convicted murderer and rapist whose earlier confession to the murder had been ignored--was linked to the crime by DNA. After an independent investigation, seven prosecutors and law-enforcement officials were indicted on charges of fabricating and suppressing evidence to frame Cruz.

The trial of the Du Page Seven, as they are known, is expected to start this week, and it could make history. If they are found guilty, the prosecutors in the group will be the first in the nation ever convicted of crimes for railroading an innocent man. The charges, which the defendants deny, have caused an uproar in Illinois. The state has freed two men from its death row this year after investigations supported their innocence.

The Illinois cases of errant prosecution bring a new element to the growing national debate about overzealous law-enforcement agents, a furor stoked by high-profile police shootings in New York and California as well as "racial profiling" by New Jersey state troopers. The question is whether law enforcement, amid its extraordinary success in pushing the crime rate down, is showing too little regard for individual rights--especially those of blacks and Hispanics, who are most often targets of alleged misconduct. "We cannot have the kind of country we want if people are afraid of those folks who are trying to protect them," President Clinton said during his press conference last Friday, after promising to seek $40 million from Congress for improved police training and recruitment.

Even supporters admit Cruz went looking for trouble--and he found it. After the Nicarico slaying, police searched for leads in Aurora, the working-class town where Cruz lived. Perhaps prodded by a $10,000 reward, Cruz began telling wild stories. The police took him on as an informant, settling him in a witness-protection housing complex, while he told what one of his lawyers concedes were lies. "It was a big game," says Northwestern University law professor Lawrence Marshall, who represented Cruz on appeal. "Nobody's defending Rolando for playing that game, but it doesn't deserve a death sentence."

That's where it was headed. Investigators began to suspect that the talkative Cruz was involved in the killing, but they had no solid evidence linking him to it. Then the so-called vision statement materialized. Detectives say Cruz told them he had a vision of Nicarico's killing, including details only the killer could know. The statement was the most damning piece of evidence against Cruz when he was tried and convicted of the crime. Still, it was always a little fishy. Despite its importance, the detectives hadn't tape-recorded it or even taken notes about it. But a prosecutor, Thomas Knight, claimed that detectives had told him about the vision statement. Cruz was convicted and sentenced to death in 1985.

While Cruz was on death row, another young girl was killed. The man who confessed to that murder, Brian Dugan, was the man who had admitted killing Nicarico. When Marshall and a team of prominent lawyers stepped in, they collected DNA evidence proving Cruz couldn't have committed the rape. They also hammered away at the vision statement. At Cruz's third trial, Lieutenant James Montesano testified that he was on vacation in Florida on the day his detectives claimed they had called him about Cruz's vision. The judge angrily dismissed the case and set Cruz free.

Under pressure to find out what went wrong, Du Page County appointed a special prosecutor, William Kunkle, who had made his name putting serial killer John Wayne Gacy on death row. Kunkle concluded that the vision statement was fabricated and that Cruz had been framed. He filed charges against three former Du Page prosecutors (two of them later became a sitting judge and an assistant U.S. Attorney) and four sheriff's deputies. The defendants all insist they are innocent, and the Nicarico family has rallied to their defense. The trial, likely to last more than a month, may be tough going for prosecutors. They will need to persuade a jury that a phalanx of law officers tried their best to send an innocent man to the electric chair. Such a thing should be unthinkable. Sadly, it is not.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3