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(Real Audio, 19:31 min)

The Cruz Case

Audio from a TV Newscast: "A jury in Rockford tonight sentenced 26-year-old Rolando Cruz to death, despite the pleas of his mother. It was the same jury that found Cruz guilty yesterday of the abduction, rape and murder seven years ago of Jeanine Nicarico of Naperville."

The 1983 murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico in Illinois precipitated a classic case of a capital murder prosecution gone awry. Two separate juries found Rolando Cruz guilty of the murder, and Cruz was twice sentenced to death. But the police had no physical evidence implicating Cruz, and DNA largely excluded him as a suspect. On top of that, a police officer lied under oath while testifying, and the prosecution suppressed a confession from a man who very well might have been the killer.
Photo: © Loren Santow

Michael Callahan, an insurance broker in Lombard, Illinois, lives about 10 miles east of where the little girl's body was found. Callahan was a member of the first jury that found Cruz guilty and led to his death sentence by a judge. Callahan says this trial— in which Cruz was tried with two co-defendants—was a "gut-wrenching" experience, and that the jury deliberations got off to a particularly bad start.

"There were probably eight jurors that I was satisfied made up their minds, before the trial started, that someone's going to pay for what they did to this little girl," describes Callahan. "As a matter of fact, the first recess, the first day of the trial, the gentleman who was elected subsequently as the jury foreman, he said, 'Well, they're here, they sure must have done something.' And I thought, you know, that's the wrong way to start out a trial."

Callahan says these preconceived notions about the guilt of the defendants were carried into the jury room two months later— at the conclusion of the trial.

"We go into the jury room," recalls Callahan, "we get the instructions from the judge, we take the vote to elect the jury foreman, this guy's elected foreman, the first words out of his mouth are, 'Well I guess this will just be a mere formality.' He kind of thought, hey fine, they're guilty, let's sign it and be on our way. And I said, what do you mean a mere formality? I said, we just spent two months listening to a whole bunch of people and as far as I'm concerned, this isn't an open and shut deal. We need to discuss the evidence."

Callahan says the state's evidence was very weak, "I can remember vividly when the state's attorney rested his case, the thought in my mind was, 'This is all we're going to hear? I mean, this is it? This is the evidence? I was just aghast. And I really started to feel uncomfortable."

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
The highest level of proof is required to get a guilty verdict in criminal cases. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is proof of such a convincing character that you would be willing to rely and act upon it without hesitation in your own affairs. The jury must be convinced that the defendant committed each element of the crime before returning a guilty verdict.

Plagued by doubts about the guilt of the defendants, determined to stand up against those jurors who'd presumed the defendants had killed little Jeanine Nicarico, what did Callahan do? Well, he went into the jury room and voted to find Cruz guilty of first-degree murder.

But why? Why would a juror with such serious reservations about the guilt of the defendants risk allowing them to be sentenced to death? What about establishing guilt, as the law requires, "beyond a reasonable doubt"?

Callahan explains, "My thoughts were, OK, I know what's going to happen. There's going to be an appeal. So I'm going to find these guys guilty. OK? I'm not totally happy with that. But I wasn't happy letting them go. I'm not totally satisfied that they were involved. However, there's enough evidence— if it were to be believed— that, yeah, maybe, maybe, maybe there's something there. So on that basis, I thought, yeah, I'll find 'em guilty. Not going to give them the death penalty. Never do that. But sooner or later the truth is going to come out."

Callahan may have been unwilling to sentence Cruz and the other defendants to death, but it didn't matter, because the elected judge in this highly politicized, high profile case showed no such reservations. Callahan was right about one thing, however. The truth did come out— about a decade later. Cruz had nothing to do with the murder. He had lost nearly 12 years of his life, most of it on death row.

Next: The Milgram Experiments

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