26 years later, justice for Jeanine

I feel the need to point out first that this post is a 180 degree turn from several of my recent, more light-hearted posts. But something that I have never, ever forgotten about was finally “settled” this week, as best as it could be. Of the people who generally respond to my blog, I imagine my parents, my siblings, and my friend Jacki probably have had similar feelings about this.

On Wednesday, November 11, a man named Brian Dugan was sentenced to death in DuPage County, Illinois, for the 1983 murder of Jeanine Nicarico.

This is Jeanine:


At any time in the past 26 years, no matter where I was in life, you could have flashed this picture in front of me, and I would know exactly who it was.

I always felt a little bit tied to Jeanine. In 1983, she was a 10-year-old girl from Naperville. I was a 9-year-old from the neighboring town of Wheaton. If I were to pull out my school picture from that year, you would see the same thing — a cute little girl, toothy smile, 80’s appropriate attire (I am pretty sure I had one of those ruffle collared shirts, too!). Hair parted in the middle, bangs askew. Wide eyed and happy. Jeanine’s parents even had the same names as my parents, Pat and Tom. By all accounts, Jeanine and I, as well as Jeanine and all my girlfriends, could have been one in the same.

On February 26, 1983, Jeanine was home sick from school with the flu. At lunchtime, her Mom came home from her job and made Jeanine a grilled cheese sandwich. I remember as a child hearing that she had also given the girl some ice cream as a treat before heading back to work, but I don’t know why that detail stuck in my head. When her family returned home later in the day, the door had been kicked in and Jeanine was gone. Two days later, two men who were walking along the Illinois Prairie Path found Jeanine’s body. She had been raped, sodomized and beaten to death with a baseball bat or tire iron. Apparently, Brian Dugan cannot remember what he hit her with.

Dugan said he had been cruising the Naperville neighborhood for a home to burglarize, but instead decided to take Jeanine when he found her home alone. If my memory of how the crime happened serves me correctly, Jeanine ran through the house to get away from Dugan. She left scratches on the wall trying to claw her way away from him. He punched her in the face and broke her nose. Dugan took Jeanine out to the Prairie Path and assaulted her on an old sleeping bag. When he was finished, he told her he would clean her up and take her home. Instead, he beat her to death. When she was found, she was face down, wearing only a t-shirt in the cold Illinois winter.

I am someone who has always been against the death penalty. A lot of people might assume that being anti-death penalty is just part of being a democrat, which clearly I am. But the fact is, the Jeanine Nicarico murder case is the reason I am against the death penalty. Because despite the fact that Brian Dugan confessed to this crime in 1985, getting him sentenced was a two-decade long ordeal. In that time, three other men were wrongly accused of Jeanine’s murder, and two of them were convicted of the crime. When the convictions were thrown out, two of them were tired and convicted AGAIN, and sent to death row for a second time. DNA and recanted testimony eventually cleared the men, but not until after they lost years of their life to prison.

The Jeanine Nicarico case is one of the main contributors to the current moratorium on enforcing the death penalty in Illinois, a moratorium imposed by Republican Governor George Ryan (before he was convicted of corruption), upheld by Democrat Governor Rod Blagojevich (before he was ousted for alleged corruption) and still upheld by the current governor, Democrat Pat Quinn. Despite party affiliation or any other scandal that may or may not surround the governors of Illinois, the mess caused by this case is so substantial that no one is ready to start executing prisoners again. That, even though the DuPage County prosecutors who ignored Dugan’s confession and pursued prosecutions against Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez for Jeanine’s murder were ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing.

In his summation of the current case, DuPage County Prosecutor Joe Birkett noted that there was never any physical evidence against Cruz and Hernandez. Cruz was ultimately pardoned in 2002. I remember watching an interview with him after he was released. He was still a teenager when he went into prison, and was in his 30’s when he was exonerated. He lost so much of his life. I know he had some trouble readjusting, but am sorry to say I have no idea what ever became of him, except that he and Hernandez did settle a civil suit with the county for $3.5 million in 2000.

Brian Dugan, meanwhile, was easy to access the whole time. He was serving life sentences for two other murders, that of 7-year-old Melissa Ackerman, and 27-year-old Donna Schnorr. Dugan ran Schnorr, a nurse who was on the way home, off the road in 1984, abducted her, raped her and murdered her. In 1985, Dugan grabbed Melissa and her friend Opal as the girls were riding their bikes. Opal manged to get out of his grip and run. As she turned, Dugan was driving away with her friend in the car. Last month, Opal told the jury charged with sentencing Dugan that the last time she saw Melissa, she was banging on the back window of Dugan’s car and screaming for help as he drove away. Opal ran to a neighbor’s house, hysterical. Melissa’s body was found later, raped and beaten to death.

After his convictions, Dugan confessed to Jeanine’s murder. But he wouldn’t make a formal confession unless he could be guaranteed that he would not receive the death penalty. Despite the fact that Dugan knew details of the crime that had not been released, despite the fact that there was no evidence against Cruz and Hernandez, despite the fact that Dugan had killed two other people, one  a little girl, in the exact same manner, prosecutors balked at his claim. For 22 years. Then, in 2005, Joe Birkett announced that DuPage County was indicting Dugan. I remember it very clearly — I turned to my husband and said, “Wow, I wonder what office Joe Birkett is running for.” Sure enough, within weeks, Birkett announced that he was running for Lt. Governor, a race he eventually lost. I’m just sayin….

Over the years, Brian Dugan has proven himself a nasty little piece of humanity, the worst of what this species can offer. He’s been manipulative, changing religions while in prison for the express reason of changing his diet to get better food. “I heard the kosher diet was better, so I switched my affiliation. Now I’m the only agnostic Jew in the jail,” Dugan wrote in a letter that was read to jurors. Dugan argued that he should be spared from the death penalty, because had he not confessed, two innocent men might have stayed on death row (how sweet of him, I guess). Dugan also filed frequent grievances against the prison where he was housed, complaining about things such as the poor quality of the paper in a copier used by inmates. He has not been remorseful for any of his crimes, even once stating that Jeanine’s murder “went as perfectly as the others, but something was wrong… I felt like I was going to get caught.” People assume that by “the others” he meant Melissa and Donna, but since he murdered them AFTER Jeanine, and he did get caught for those murders, I really don’t know what that means.

What I do know, however, is that I look at myself every day, and I find something wrong. My hair is grey, my thighs are big, my belly jiggles when I walk. I worry about money and the car breaking down. I snicker at people at the gym. I talk to my sister for hours on the telephone. I go to work. I poke my husband as he snores in his sleep. I blog. I snuggle with my sons every day. This is what Jeanine should be doing too. But she’s not. Brian Dugan took it away from her.

I remember my mother being affected deeply, worrying about me and my sister when we went out, the safety of her suburbia snatched away a bit. I went from seeing the case through the eyes of a child, to a teen, to an adult, to a mother myself. When Jeanine was murdered, I thought, “That’s kind of sad.” I went on to high school, to prom, to boyfriends. I went to college and lived with awesome friends and enjoyed nights that lasted until dawn and jobs in exciting cities. I moved around. I settled down. All the things that other women born in the early 1970’s did. Except for Jeanine. She never got the chance. When Brian Dugan was sentenced to death, I cried for Jeanine, and for the loss of the life she never got to have. For her husband. For her children. For the sweet normal boredom that she never got to enjoy.

I don’t believe in the death penalty. But in the case of Brian Dugan, I wish Illinois would lift the moratorium and bring back the electric chair. Then maybe fry him twice.



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8 responses to “26 years later, justice for Jeanine

  1. Frank

    As the father of an eight month old girl, I would just like 20 minutes alone in a room with him

  2. Mom

    I go back and forth on the death sentence. My first real case was Richard Speck and I was sorry when he died of NATURAL CAUSES in prison. The pain he inflicted on not just those girls but their families goes on even today. And yes Jeanine makes me say set it up and I’ll press the buttons.But I still have something inside of me that wonders. I do believe that they will be in hell with ADOLPH. Love Mom

  3. Jacki

    It is scary to think that, in the blink of an eye, your life can be changed so drastically. This man deserves to die and live the rest of his eternal life in hell.

  4. Meg

    Thank you for writing this Marney. I honestly haven’t takene the time to read up on all of this and become informed but thanks to your post, I do feel more educated and realize what scum this guy is.

  5. Nancy

    You know I’m just as blue a democrat as the next – but believe it or not I support the death penalty. Obviously this is a good example of why. Of course there are times when I would rather it was replaced with the “Chain him to the ground naked in the general prison population” penalty – but often that takes care of itself.

  6. Mandy

    I am against the death penalty as well except for a very few cases.

    I have not heard of this case at all until now.

  7. Thanks for posting this — this is the reason I believe in the death penalty in cases where there’s overwhelming evidence of the charged being guilty. DNA doesn’t lie.

    I wholeheartedly agree, bring back the electric chair and let’s have some fun with this man.

  8. musesofamom

    I am from Chicago and I remember this case. Some crimes are so heinous they demand the death penalty and this one would fall into that class. Some offenders do things that absolutely offend the sensibilities of the community. Beating, raping and sodomizing a child is indefensible. I too am a Democrat, but I am also a mother of 2 and to think of Jeanine’s mother and all the dreams she had for a daughter that will never be realized is heartbreaking, and even if Dugan is put to death it will not bring her child back but this case warrants the death penalty.

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