The Justice Project - Profile of Injustice

Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez

After spending more than 10 years on Illinois’ death row, Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez were finally cleared of a crime that another man had confessed to committing a decade earlier. On November 3, 1995, on the basis of DNA evidence, recanted testimony, and lack of any other substantial evidence against him, a circuit judge acquitted Cruz. Hernandez’s case was later dismissed on the same grounds. In his ruling, the judge held that the 10-year legal odyssey of both men defied “common sense.”

In 1985, Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez were jointly sentenced to death for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of a girl in DuPage County, Ill. Though both men maintained their innocence, presented a credible alibi, and were never physically linked to the crime scene, the jury nevertheless found Cruz and Hernandez guilty. Testimony from opportunistic prisoners and investigators formed the only substance of the prosecution’s case against them, much of it involving Cruz’s alleged and unrecorded confession of murderous “dream visions,” admitted into evidence through testimony from a sheriff’s detective.

From its beginning, as the Chicago Tribune later reported, the case was “intertwined with politics.” The county’s State’s Attorney J. Michael Fitzsimmons indicted Cruz and Hernandez just two weeks before his reelection bid. Prisoners testified years later that some of the charges against them were “possibly” dropped after they falsely testified against the two defendants. The crime itself was like “the boogeyman come to life,” as one local lawyer observed, instilling terror throughout the largely white and middle-class suburb.

In 1985, just after Cruz and Hernandez were sentenced, a newly apprehended repeat sex offender and murderer, Brian Dugan, confessed to area authorities that he had in fact committed the crime - and acted alone. Yet Dugan’s testimony, corroborated with considerable evidence, was discounted and deliberately looked over by the prosecution for years.

Three years later, in 1988, Cruz won an appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court. The Court reversed and remanded both Cruz’s and Hernandez’s case back to DuPage County, but only on technical grounds, insisting both men be tried separately. Once there, new juries, after hearing much of the same prosecutorial evidence and without full knowledge of Dugan’s confession, convicted both men for a second time.

In 1990, a volunteer legal team led by Professor Lawrence C. Marshall at Northwestern University Law School agreed to represent Cruz on a second appeal. Multiple amicus briefs and the revelation of Dugan’s statements back in 1985 prompted the Illinois Supreme Court to reverse their convictions a second time. Almost 10 years after their initial sentence, the Cruz/Hernandez case would be moved back to DuPage County for a potential third trial.

Around the same time, in September 1995, new DNA tests proved that neither Cruz nor Hernandez could be contributors to physical evidence gathered at the crime scene. Dugan, however, was traced directly to the scene. And yet DuPage County prosecutors, though now conceding that neither man could have been the rapist, still maintained they were “present” at the scene of the crime, and proceeded to indict both men in a third trial. The Chicago Tribune began openly speculating that the DuPage law enforcers were more interested in protecting reputations than justice.

In the third trial, just before the judge was to give his direct ruling, a lieutenant who originally swore to Cruz’s “dream vision” statements testified that, in fact, he was in Florida the day the purported conversation occurred. Finally, on November 3, 1995, the DuPage County circuit judge, on the basis of the recanted testimony, the new DNA evidence, and lack of any other substantial evidence against him, acquitted Cruz, calling the initial murder investigation “sloppy.”

In the trial’s aftermath, a special grand jury indicted four sheriff’s deputies and three prosecutors for perjury and obstruction of justice in their involvement with the Cruz and Hernandez case (“The DuPage Seven”). In December 2002, based on their innocence, Illinois Governor George Ryan pardoned both men.