Setting straight more Cruz facts

Eric Zorn

A flier now circulating in Naperville illustrates the tone and quality of the public campaigning that is likely to precede the retrial of Rolando Cruz.

"Friends of Jeanine need your support," reads the top of the one-page document distributed last Sunday at St. Raphael Catholic Church, the home parish of the family of 1983 murder victim Jeanine Nicarico.

It goes on to explain how the Illinois Supreme Court in 1992 denied Cruz a new trial after his conviction for that murder, and how the court narrowly reversed itself earlier this month and ordered a new trial.

"Newly elected Justice [John] Nickels cast the deciding vote in the reversal," the flier says.

"What is not common knowledge is that Judge Nickels' campaign manager was attorney Gary Johnson," the flier continues. "Johnson was the lead counsel for the defense in the original trial in 1985. He has maintained an active role in the case."

The flier suggest that Nickels, therefore, should not have voted in the Cruz case and asks people to sign a letter of protest to the court.

The factual assertions, however, are askew: Johnson was not Nickels' campaign manager in his successful 1992 run for the Supreme Court, but rather his campaign chairman. The former is an active, paying job; the latter is a symbolic and unpaid position in most cases. Johnson estimated he devoted less than 10 hours to his volunteer position and donated less than $90 to the effort.

Johnson was not the "lead counsel" in Cruz's 1985 trial. He didn't represent Cruz at all. His client was Steven Buckley, one of two other co-defendants in the original trial.

Johnson's "active role" in the case since that trial has been limited to appearing on TV's "48 Hours" to discuss the bizarre quality of the forensic evidence offered against Buckley (the case was ultimately dismissed) and to writing a strongly-worded letter in 1991 to a sentencing judge on behalf of yet another co-defendant in the Nicarico case, Alex Hernandez.

Johnson said he has long taken care never to discuss any aspect of the case with Nickels, a Maple Park resident who was a circuit judge in the far western suburbs before running for the Illinois Appellate Court in 1990. In a statement released Friday, Nickels said, "I share Johnson's recollection."

The political connection between Johnson and Nickels is not particularly uncommon in a system in which judges and justices must dabble in politics. Another example from the same case: When Nickels was running for the Appellate Court, Johnson remembers a fundraiser in Batavia at which his job was to introduce, as an honored guest speaker, DuPage County State's Attorney Jim Ryan, a man whose name appears on state briefs opposing a new trial for Rolando Cruz.

Illinois courts have several times held that such relationships are well below the threshold for conflict of interest.

So why the fuss now over Gary Johnson? A likely explanation is that he is looming as a public relations nightmare for those who want to see Cruz convicted for a third time. He is a harsh critic of Ryan's handling of the Nicarico case. In that 1991 letter he wrote: "Someday, sooner or later, the public will realize what has happened in Nicarico." That realization "will do to prosecutors what the Rodney King police beating tapes have done to the police."

But he is also a longtime Republican who oversaw several death-penalty prosecutions when he was the elected state's attorney of Kane County from 1988 to 1992.

Johnson, 41, now in private practice in Aurora, is perhaps the most prominent of those who give lie to the notion that Cruz supporters are a pack of handwringing liberals with a socio-political agenda, who don't really care about who killed a 10-year-old girl.

With his trial experience and extensive knowledge of the case, he is also the most obvious candidate to become Cruz's new defense attorney. Indeed, the only thing standing in the way is the possibility that his connection to Justice Nickels will become a distracting and damaging issue.

Johnson declined to comment on this prevalent speculation. But should he be names, it will set up a classic courtroom confrontation between similar adversaries that promises to destroy a few stereotypes and open up a few minds.

The flier in Naperville asks people to pray "for truth and justice to prevail in the Janine Nicarico murder case."

Gary Johnson is not out to thwart those prayers, but answer them.