The 1985 attempt by Jim Ryan, the Republican candidate for governor and Joe Birkett, the Republican candidate for Illinois attorney general, to frame two Latino men has become a red-hot issue in the Illinois elections.
Ryan, a hard-right Republican, is running against centrist Democratic Congressman Rod Blagojevich, to replace moderate Republican governor George Ryan. The race for attorney general pits Democratic State Senator Lisa Madigan against Birkett, the extreme reactionary state’s attorney of DuPage County, which contains some of Chicago’s wealthier suburbs.
Ryan and Birkett are clearly to the right of their Democratic opponents on a number of issues. Ryan is vocally anti-labor and Birkett is rabidly anti-choice and pro-gun. But it is the their handling of the 1983 murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico, that has dominated the headlines as the elections come down to the wire.
Three men, Rolando Cruz, Alejandro Hernandez and Steve Buckley, were arrested for the murder. Buckley was released, but Ryan’s aggressive prosecution and unethical tactics resulted in Cruz and Hernandez being convicted and sentenced to death in 1985.
Very quickly, the prosecution’s case began to stink to high heaven. The broad-based Coalition for Justice doggedly investigated the case and found it based on the unsubstantiated assertions of the prosecutor and very little actual evidence. Then another man, Brian Dugan, already serving life for a similar crime, admitted he killed the girl and that neither Cruz nor Hernandez had anything to do with it. But he would not formally confess unless Ryan guaranteed he would not be executed. Ryan not only would not guarantee this; many accuse him of completely ignoring the Dugan admissions, which were eventually supported up by DNA evidence. Twice the Illinois Supreme Court threw out the convictions, and twice Ryan dragged the men back to trial and to repeated convictions.
Finally, in 1995, a police detective who had played a key role in the conviction of Cruz and Hernandez, admitted in court that he had invented the only remaining piece of evidence against Cruz. A furious judge threw the case out, and Cruz and Hernandez were free.
Meanwhile, Ryan was elected Illinois attorney general and Joe Birkett succeeded him as DuPage state’s attorney. Birkett is accused of having pressured a witness to give false testimony against Cruz during Ryan’s tenure. As state’s attorney, Birkett openly sabotaged the work of a special prosecutor assigned to investigate the misconduct of police and prosecutors in the Cruz-Hernandez case.
With both the accused free, perhaps Ryan and Birkett hoped the case would fade from memory. But the memory of these events, which led The Chicago Tribune to say nobody involved should ever hold an office of public trust again, will not go away.
Governor George Ryan, who gained international fame for putting a moratorium on the death penalty, said he may commute the sentences of all 159 people on Illinois’ death row. Cruz has applied to the governor for a full pardon. (Incredibly enough, his criminal record is not expunged nor his rights restored, despite the fact that he has been completely cleared of the murder).
Yet, Ryan and Birkett have been aggressively opposing the governor’s commutation plan. Coalition for Justice Executive Director Diana Eiranova and many public figures have demanded that Ryan and Birkett support Cruz’s petition, but they have refused to do so and continue to hint that the men are somehow guilty, while still not moving on the prosecution of Dugan.
Social justice activists point out that if Ryan and Birkett are elected the lives of 159 people now on Death Row, and others who might be sent there on false evidence, will hang by a thread.
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