Thursday, February 17, 2005

Riley Fox, Jeanine Nicarico and the Illinois Criminal Justice System

If you are from Northern Illinois, you probably remember the story in early June, 2004, of 3 year old Riley Fox being abducted from her home, raped and murdered. It was horrible, just awful, and made even more so a few months later with the charging of her father, Kevin Fox, with the crime.

Police say that her father confessed, but he quickly recanted saying that the confession had been coerced. He claims that he had been interrogated for over 14 hours and says he was denied access to an attorney during the interrogation. His family, including his wife (the mother of Riley Fox) has steadfastly maintained his innocence. They’ve set up their own website to help in his defense and have offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to the “real killer”.

I’m going to have more to say about this in future postings, but my point in this entry is this; I really wish that we could trust our criminal justice system, especially in a capital case. If you are from Northern Illinois, you probably also remember the Rolando Cruz fiasco. This began when another little girl, Jeanine Nicarico, was abducted from her home, raped and then murdered. Rolando Cruz, Alex Hernandez and Stephen Buckley were accused of the crime by the DuPage County Sheriff’s office. They brought this case to trial three times. The first two trials resulted in a jury vote to convict. The Illinois Supreme Court threw out both these verdicts (though for the second trial, they first voted to uphold the verdict and only later reversed themselves). Between the first and second trials, Brian Dugan, who was already doing time after being convicted of two similar crimes, confessed to the Nicarico murder (though he would do so formally only if granted immunity from the death penalty). He passed a lie-detector test. Before the third trial of Roland Cruz began, DNA evidence excluded Cruz and implicated Dugan. And yet the DuPage County Prosecutor decided to proceed anyway and bring Rolando Cruz to trial for a third time.

Finally, in this third trial, a courageous and honest judge, The Honorable Ronald Mehling, threw the case out as the flaws in it became so apparent that no other course was possible. If you want to read a more detailed account of what happened, check out Victims of Justice by Thomas Frisbie and Randy Garrett. It’s a completely absorbing book. When I began reading it, I literally could not put it down until I finished it (at 3:00am the next morning). As a final irony to this affair, the States Attorney for DuPage County and the man responsible for much of the prosecutorial incompetence, Jim Ryan, ran for governor in 2002 on the Republican ticket, thankfully losing.

This wasn’t an isolated case either, just perhaps the most “celebrated” one. Conviction after conviction has been thrown out, people who have spent years, sometimes more than a decade on Death Row, have been freed. And then-Governor George Ryan (no relation to Jim Ryan) took the step of commuting all death sentences in Illinois, saying that he no longer had any faith in the process.

How could this happen? How could the Illinois Criminal Justice System be so flawed? Can we trust these people to get anything right?

This is all I can think of when I hear the story of how prosecutors in Will County are “sure” that Kevin Fox committed the crime. I wish I could believe them, I really do. And maybe they’re right. I certainly don’t have any inside evidence to point me one way or the other. But it’s going to take a lot more than just a County Prosecutor saying that “we have our man” before I’ll believe them.

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