Injustice in Illinois

THOSE still ruminating about O.J. Simpson might wish to consider the case of Rolando Cruz in Illinois. Mr. Cruz has spent 12 years in prison for allegedly kidnapping, raping, and murdering a 10-year-old girl - a crime he says he did not commit.

Several officials who've been connected with the case also say Cruz didn't do it. ''It makes me ashamed to have been a prosecutor,'' former Illinois assistant attorney general Mary Kenney told ABC News. She resigned over the case. The former Naperville police chief says Cruz didn't do it. ''The case stinks. It doesn't hold up,'' James Teal told the network. And John Sam, the lead police detective who investigated the case, says Cruz didn't do it: ''I still, for the life of me, cannot figure out what evidence there was that could have convicted him the first time.'' He also quit over the matter.

Cruz was convicted and sentenced to death in 1985, but the conviction was thrown out. A second conviction in 1990 was also overturned. Now, incredibly, DuPage County authorities are trying Cruz a third time.

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Jailhouse informants

No physical evidence and no eyewitnesses place Cruz at the scene of the crime. DNA evidence excludes him as a suspect. The entire case has been built on the questionable use of jailhouse informants - convicts who testify in a case so their sentences will be reduced.

The fellow prisoner who claimed at the first trial that Cruz confessed to the crime now says he lied. ABC and the Chicago Tribune report that police and prosecutors are now trying to coerce other prisoners and former prisoners into testifying that Cruz confessed.

It gets worse: For years it has been widely known and reported that another man, Brian Dugan, confessed to the crime. Mr. Dugan is a convicted rapist and murderer whose DNA matches that from the crime scene. Other evidence points to him as well. Dugan told police that he alone committed the crime, but that didn't stop DuPage County prosecutors from coming up with a new theory of the case: that Dugan and Cruz committed the murder together. Naturally, in the second trial, they conveniently found a jailhouse informant who could testify that Cruz told him that.

Dugan has never been charged with the murder, and no jury has ever heard the evidence that implicates him. That's one reason the Illinois Supreme Court threw out the second conviction. Now prosecutors are reportedly pressuring Dugan to say Cruz was involved.

This is the kind of mindless prosecution you get when police and prosecutors forget what their job is. It isn't just to get a conviction. It's to solve the crime, get a conviction, but also to see that justice is done. A primary rule of investigation is never to theorize in advance of the facts. In this case, and others like it, prosecutors are theorizing in spite of the facts.

Politics and prosecutors

County prosecutors are elected officials. When the prosecutor's political career becomes more important than a search for the truth, anything can happen. And if the prosecutor has his or her eye on higher office, as many do, the situation is compounded. In this case, the DuPage County prosecutor, James Ryan, has gone on to become Illinois attorney general. Perhaps the time has come to consider appointing, instead of electing, district attorneys.

The public and the media can help by exercising patience and letting the police do their job. Public pressure for an arrest, any arrest, has too often led police into error. A good example is the infamous Carol Stuart murder case in Boston. Police went through minority neighborhoods busting down doors and arrested a black man, only to find out that the victim's husband probably did it. (He jumped off a bridge on the day the incriminating information was given to police.) The man falsely arrested is currently suing police.

The Illinois case also throws light on authorities' increasing use of jailhouse informants. Many of these people have every reason to lie, especially when prosecutors can make more trouble for them or lighten their sentence. Jurors should regard such testimony skeptically and insist on corroboration.

Finally, this is yet another example of why the death penalty should be abolished. Too often it's difficult to be sure you've caught the real criminal. When you can't trust prosecutors to do the right thing, it's even worse.

The persecution of Rolando Cruz should have been halted long ago. The jury in the third Cruz trial should send another message to the DuPage County D.A.: This nonsense must stop. Now go after the real murderer.

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