2016-07-27
An excerpt from "Ultimate Punishment," (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003)

On February 3, 1984, a young woman named Michelle Thompson and a male friend, Rene Valentine, were forced at gunpoint from the car they'd just entered in a parking lot outside D. Laney's, a nightclub in Gurnee, Illinois, north of Chicago. The gunman walked Valentine a short distance, then shot him in the chest at point-blank range. When the police arrived, Michelle Thompson was gone.

I was an Assistant United States Attorney in Chicago at the time, and my oldest friend in the federal prosecutor's office, Jeremy Margolis, helped direct the FBI's search for Thompson. Initially, the case appeared to be an interstate kidnapping, which is a federal matter. Within a few days, the crime proved to be one within the province of state authorities: murder. Beaten, raped, and strangled, Thompson's body was discovered in Wisconsin. Shortly thereafter, Hector Reuben Sanchez, an illiterate but ambitious factory worker and burglar, was arrested, along with an accomplice, Warren Peters, Jr., who ultimately agreed to testify against Sanchez.

Deeply enmeshed in the case by now, Jeremy was appointed a special Assistant State's Attorney to help the local prosecutors try Sanchez in state court in Lake County, Illinois. As Jeremy prepared for trial, I spent hours listening to him describe Michelle Thompson's miserable final night. After Sanchez raped Thompson on the floor of the family room in his house, she escaped and dashed, still handcuffed and naked below the waist, through the snow to the back door of a neighbor's, where she pleaded for help. Sanchez found her there and later assuaged the neighbor by telling him that Thompson was drunk and hysterical.

The pathos of the neighbor's account of the young woman being led away by Sanchez was heartbreaking. Michelle Thompson had been abused now for several hours, and she offered no further resistance. She was resigned to being tortured and degraded, and hoped only to live--a meager, abased wish that went unfulfilled. Back in his house, Sanchez gagged Michelle Thompson with a strip of cloth, bent her over a washing machine and sodomized her, then strangled her with a nylon strap and a coat hanger. He finished the job by beating her head on the basement floor.

In pursuing the case, the FBI had discovered that nine years earlier Sanchez had murdered his girlfriend, slashing her throat and shooting her, then escaped prosecution by threatening the witnesses. This time Jeremy and the Lake County State's Attorneys were determined that there would be no repetitions. They were seeking the death penalty.

Through Jeremy, I followed the progress of the case closely. Late in the summer, he and Ray McKoski, then the First Assistant State's Attorney in Lake County, proceeded to trial in Waukegan, Illinois. When Sanchez was convicted and sentenced to death in September 1984, I relished their victory.

That sideline experience remained my only direct exposure to capital prosecutions until 1991, when I was asked to take on the pro bono appeal of Alejandro Hernandez. By then I was in private practice as a partner in the Chicago office of Sonnenschein Nath and Rosenthal, a large national firm. I'd known of Hernandez for nearly a decade by now as a co-defendant in what the press commonly referred to as "The Case That Broke Chicago's Heart." On February 25, 1983, Patricia Nicarico, who worked as a school secretary in Naperville, a suburb outside Chicago, had returned home to discover that her front door had been kicked in and that her ten-year-old daughter, Jeanine, was missing.

Two days later, the girl's body, blindfolded and otherwise clad only in a nightshirt, was found in a nearby nature preserve. She had died as the result of repeated blows to the head, administered only after she had been sexually assaulted in a number of ways. More than forty law enforcement officers joined a multi-jurisdictional task force organized to hunt down the killer, for whose capture a $10,000 reward was offered. By early 1984, the case had still not been solved, and a heated primary campaign was under way for the job of State's Attorney in DuPage County. A few days before the primary, on March 6, 1984, Alex Hernandez, Rolando Cruz, and Stephen Buckley were indicted, even though six weeks earlier the State's Attorney had said that there was insufficient evidence to indict anyone.

James Ryan won the election and became the new DuPage County State's Attorney. (Ryan was elected Attorney General of Illinois in 1994 and served until early 2003, after losing in the November 2002 election, when he was the Republican candidate for Governor.) Ryan's new office took the case against the three defendants to trial in January 1985. The jury deadlocked on Buckley, but Hernandez and Cruz were both convicted and sentenced to death. There was no physical evidence against either of them--no blood, semen, fingerprints, hair, fiber, or other forensic proof. The state's case consisted solely of each man's statements, a contradictory maze of mutual accusations and demonstrable falsehoods as testified to by various informants and police officers.

By the time the case reached me, seven years after Hernandez and Cruz were first arrested, the Illinois Supreme Court, in 1988, had reversed the original convictions and ordered separate retrials. Cruz was convicted and sentenced to death again in April 1990. The jury hung in Hernandez's second trial, but the state put him on trial for his life a third time in May 1991. He was found guilty but sentenced to eighty years, rather than to execution. When Hernandez's trial lawyers, Mike Metnick, Jeff Urdangen, and Jane Raley, approached me, they made a straightforward pitch. Their client was innocent. I didn't believe it. I knew how the system worked. Convict an innocent man once? Not likely, but possible. Twice? Never. And even if it were true, I couldn't envision convincing an appeals court to overturn the conviction a second time. Illinois elects its state court judges, and this was a celebrated child murder.

The lawyers begged me to read the brief that Larry Marshall, a renowned professor of criminal law at Northwestern University, had filed in behalf of Cruz, and to look at the transcripts of Hernandez's trials. By the time I had done this, six weeks later, I knew I had to take the case or stop calling myself a lawyer. Alex Hernandez was innocent.

In June 1985, a few months after Hernandez and Cruz were first convicted, another little girl, Melissa Ackerman, age seven, was abducted and murdered in LaSalle County, about an hour's drive from Jeanine Nicarico's house. Both Melissa and Jeanine were kidnapped in broad daylight, carried away in blankets, sodomized, and murdered in a wooded area. A man named Brian Dugan was arrested for Melissa's murder. In the course of complex plea discussions, his lawyer said that Dugan was prepared to plead guilty not only to the Ackerman killing but to a host of other crimes, including raping and killing two more females. One of the additional women Dugan was prepared to admit he killed was a twenty-seven-year-old nurse named Donna Schnorr. The other was Jeanine Nicarico.

The prosecutors from DuPage County were contacted and invited to question Dugan, through his attorney. The First Assistant, Robert Kilander, and a younger prosecutor met with Dugan's lawyer, but after returning to their office, they refused to accept Dugan's statements or to deal with him further. (Nor did anyone from the DuPage office inform the lawyers for Cruz and Hernandez that another man was prepared to admit to the murder for which their clients were then awaiting execution.)

Faced with DuPage's response, one of the LaSalle County prosecutors contacted the Illinois State Police to be certain that someone looked into the matter. Under the direction of Commander Ed Cisowski, the state police investigated Dugan's admission that he was the lone killer of Jeanine. By the time they were done, Cisowski had concluded that DuPage had convicted the wrong men. Dugan was not at work at the time of the murder, and a church secretary recalled speaking to Dugan two blocks from the Nicarico home that day. A tire print found where Jeanine's body was deposited matched the tires that had been on Dugan's car. He knew a multitude of details related to the crime that were never publicly revealed, including several facts about the interior of the Nicarico home and the blindfold he'd applied to Jeanine.

Despite all of this, the DuPage County prosecutors attempted, for a decade, to debunk Dugan's confession. Even after Cruz's and Hernandez's second convictions were overturned in July 1994 and in January 1995 as a result of the separate appeals Larry Marshall and I argued, and notwithstanding a series of DNA results that excluded first Hernandez, then Cruz as Jeanine Nicarico's sexual assailant, while pointing directly at Dugan, DuPage continued to pursue the cases. Only after Cruz was acquitted in his third trial, in late 1995, were both men at last freed.


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