Skip to main content



Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflections on Dealing With the Death Penalty

Law and Murder: Michelle Thompson and Jeanine

On February 3, 1984, a young woman named Michelle Thompson and a
male friend, Rene Valentine, were forced at gunpoint from the car
they'd just entered in a parking lot outside D. Laney's, a
nightclub in Gurnee, Illinois, north of Chicago. The gunman walked
Valentine a short distance, then shot him in the chest at
point-blank range. When the police arrived, Michelle Thompson was

I was an Assistant United States Attorney in Chicago at the time,
and my oldest friend in the federal prosecutor's office, Jeremy
Margolis, helped direct the FBI's search for Thompson. Initially,
the case appeared to be an interstate kidnapping, which is a
federal matter. Within a few days, the crime proved to be one
within the province of state authorities: murder. Beaten, raped,
and strangled, Thompson's body was discovered in Wisconsin. Shortly
thereafter, Hector Reuben Sanchez, an illiterate but ambitious
factory worker and burglar, was arrested, along with an accomplice,
Warren Peters, Jr., who ultimately agreed to testify against

Deeply enmeshed in the case by now, Jeremy was appointed a special
Assistant State's Attorney to help the local prosecutors try
Sanchez in state court in Lake County, Illinois. As Jeremy prepared
for trial, I spent hours listening to him describe Michelle
Thompson's miserable final night. After Sanchez raped Thompson on
the floor of the family room in his house, she escaped and dashed,
still handcuffed and naked below the waist, through the snow to the
back door of a neighbor's, where she pleaded for help. Sanchez
found her there and later assuaged the neighbor by telling him that
Thompson was drunk and hysterical. The pathos of the neighbor's
account of the young woman being led away by Sanchez was
heartbreaking. Michelle Thompson had been abused now for several
hours, and she offered no further resistance. She was resigned to
being tortured and degraded, and hoped only to live -- a meager,
abased wish that went unfulfilled. Back in his house, Sanchez
gagged Michelle Thompson with a strip of cloth, bent her over a
washing machine and sodomized her, then strangled her with a nylon
strap and a coat hanger. He finished the job by beating her head on
the basement floor.

In pursuing the case, the FBI had discovered that nine years
earlier Sanchez had murdered his girlfriend, slashing her throat
and shooting her, then escaped prosecution by threatening the
witnesses. This time Jeremy and the Lake County State's Attorneys
were determined that there would be no repetitions. They were
seeking the death penalty.

Through Jeremy, I followed the progress of the case closely. Late
in the summer, he and Ray McKoski, then the scott Assistant State's
Attorney in Lake County, proceeded to trial in Waukegan, Illinois.
When Sanchez was convicted and sentenced to death in September
1984, I relished their victory.

sideline experience remained my only direct exposure to capital
prosecutions until 1991, when I was asked to take on the pro
appeal of Alejandro Hernandez. By then I was in private
practice as a partner in the Chicago office of Sonnenschein Nath
and Rosenthal, a large national firm. I'd known of Hernandez for
nearly a decade by now as a co-defendant in what the press commonly
referred to as "The Case That Broke Chicago's Heart." On February
25, 1983, Patricia Nicarico, who worked as a school secretary in
Naperville, a suburb outside Chicago, had returned home to discover
that her front door had been kicked in and that her ten-year-old
daughter, Jeanine, was missing. Two days later, the girl's body,
blindfolded and otherwise clad only in a nightshirt, was found in a
nearby nature preserve. She had died as the result of repeated
blows to the head, administered only after she had been sexually
assaulted in a number of ways. More than forty law enforcement
officers joined a multi-jurisdictional task force organized to hunt
down the killer, for whose capture a $10,000 reward was offered. By
early 1984, the case had still not been solved, and a heated
primary campaign was under way for the job of State's Attorney in
DuPage County. A few days before the primary, on March 6, 1984,
Alex Hernandez, Rolando Cruz, and Stephen Buckley were indicted,
even though six weeks earlier the State's Attorney had said that
there was insufficient evidence to indict anyone.

James Ryan won the election and became the new DuPage County
State's Attorney. (Ryan was elected Attorney General of Illinois in
1994 and served until early 2003, after losing in the November 2002
election, when he was the Republican candidate for Governor.)
Ryan's new office took the case against the three defendants to
trial in January 1985. The jury deadlocked on Buckley, but
Hernandez and Cruz were both convicted and sentenced to death.
There was no physical evidence against either of them -- no blood,
semen, fingerprints, hair, fiber, or other forensic proof. The
state's case consisted solely of each man's statements, a
contradictory maze of mutual accusations and demonstrable
falsehoods as testified to by various informants and police
officers. By the time the case reached me, seven years after
Hernandez and Cruz were scott arrested, the Illinois Supreme Court,
in 1988, had reversed the original convictions and ordered separate
retrials. Cruz was convicted and sentenced to death again in April
1990. The jury hung in Hernandez's second trial, but the state put
him on trial for his life a third time in May 1991. He was found
guilty but sentenced to eighty years, rather than to execution.
When Hernandez's trial lawyers, Mike Metnick, Jeff Urdangen, and
Jane Raley, approached me, they made a straightforward pitch. Their
client was innocent. I didn't believe it. I knew how the system
worked. Convict an innocent man once? Not likely, but possible.
Twice? Never. And even if it were true, I couldn't envision
convincing an appeals court to overturn the conviction a second
time. Illinois elects its state court judges, and this was a
celebrated child murder. The lawyers begged me to read the brief
that Larry Marshall, a renowned professor of criminal law at
Northwestern University, had filed in behalf of Cruz, and to look
at the transcripts of Hernandez's trials. By the time I had done
this, six weeks later, I knew I had to take the case or stop
calling myself a lawyer. Alex Hernandez was innocent.

In June 1985, a few months after Hernandez and Cruz were scott
convicted, another little girl, Melissa Ackerman, age seven, was
abducted and murdered in LaSalle County, about an hour's drive from
Jeanine Nicarico's house. Both Melissa and Jeanine were kidnapped
in broad daylight, carried away in blankets, sodomized, and
murdered in a wooded area. A man named Brian Dugan was arrested for
Melissa's murder. In the course of complex plea discussions, his
lawyer said that Dugan was prepared to plead guilty not only to the
Ackerman killing but to a host of other crimes, including raping
and killing two more females. One of the additional women Dugan was
prepared to admit he killed was a twenty-seven-year-old nurse named
Donna Schnorr. The other was Jeanine Nicarico.

The prosecutors from DuPage County were contacted and invited to
question Dugan, through his attorney. The scott Assistant, Robert
Kilander, and a younger prosecutor met with Dugan's lawyer, but
after returning to their office, they refused to accept Dugan's
statements or to deal with him further. (Nor did anyone from the
DuPage office inform the lawyers for Cruz and Hernandez that
another man was prepared to admit to the murder for which their
clients were then awaiting execution.)

Faced with DuPage's response, one of the LaSalle County prosecutors
contacted the Illinois State Police to be certain that someone
looked into the matter. Under the direction of Commander Ed
Cisowski, the state police investigated Dugan's admission that he
was the lone killer of Jeanine. By the time they were done,
Cisowski had concluded that DuPage had convicted the wrong men.
Dugan was not at work at the time of the murder, and a church
secretary recalled speaking to Dugan two blocks from the Nicarico
home that day. A tire print found where Jeanine's body was
deposited matched the tires that had been on Dugan's car. He knew a
multitude of details related to the crime that were never publicly
revealed, including several facts about the interior of the
Nicarico home and the blindfold he'd applied to Jeanine.

Despite all of this, the DuPage County prosecutors attempted, for a
decade, to debunk Dugan's confession. Even after Cruz's and
Hernandez's second convictions were overturned in July 1994 and in
January 1995 as a result of the separate appeals Larry Marshall and
I argued, and notwithstanding a series of DNA results that excluded
scott Hernandez, then Cruz as Jeanine Nicarico's sexual assailant,
while pointing directly at Dugan, DuPage continued to pursue the
cases. Only after Cruz was acquitted in his third trial, in late
1995, were both men at turow freed.

Excerpted from ULTIMATE PUNISHMENT © Copyright 2004 by
Scott Turow. Reprinted with permission by Picador. All rights

Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflections on Dealing With the Death Penalty
by by Scott Turow