Constable: Nicarico case at center of lawyer’s diverse career
Gary Johnson talks about his book, with stories
of him going to jail and defending a man wrongfully charged with killing
Jeanine Nicarico of Naperville.
Brian Hill | Staff Photographer
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During more than four decades as an
attorney, Gary V. Johnson of St. Charles has compiled a rare legal
trifecta. As Kane County state’s attorney, he sent people to prison. As a
defense attorney, he saved a man falsely accused of one of the suburbs’
most notorious murders from a potential death sentence. And then there
was that time Johnson had his mug shot and fingerprints taken, was
handcuffed, had his legs shackled and was shuffled off to a small cell
in the DuPage County jail.
A small picture frame holds
evidence of Johnson’s “aggressive fighting for the right” — the booking
photos of his face and profile for that time he and co-counsel Carol
Anfinson were held in contempt of court for refusing to do some
unnecessary research for a legal point they never pushed. They had
bigger concerns while working on their defense of Steve Buckley, a
21-year-old high school dropout who lived with his parents on the east
side of Aurora and was charged in the high-profile rape and murder of
10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico of Naperville.
Details of that defense take up
the majority of Johnson’s new memoir titled, “Luck is a Talent: The True
Story of a Trial Lawyer’s Experience Defending an Innocent Man Charged
The Nicarico tragedy began on
Feb, 25, 1983, when Jeanine was home sick from school. Her parents, away
at work, checked in on her a couple of times that day before someone
kicked in the door of their home in an apparent burglary. Sexually
assaulted and beaten to death, the girl’s body was discovered two days
later in a park.
More than a year later, Buckley,
Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez were arrested and charged with
murder, kidnapping and sexual assault.
Having spent four years as an
assistant state’s attorney for Kane County, Johnson was in private
practice, doing civil cases for the firm of Clancy, McGuirk and Hulce
but looking to work on a criminal defense case.
“Boy, have I got a case for you,”
said fellow attorney and friend Cliff Lund, who invited Johnson to help
him defend Buckley in the case, for which prosecutors were seeking the
Meeting Buckley in the DuPage
County jail, “I got a pretty good sense he was innocent,” Johnson
remembers, adding that the evidence quickly reinforced that belief.
“I liked Steve from the get-go,” writes Johnson, who says he remains friends with Buckley.
Buckley’s fate centered around a print of the shoe used to kick in the Nicaricos’ door.
“I was about to learn more about
shoe prints than I ever thought possible,” Johnson writes as a way of
introducing the detailed work it took to prove Buckley’s innocence. “The
sole had a name.”
The “New Silver Cloud” sole was
found in the shoes Buckley bought at a Payless store, but it also was
found in shoes Buckley’s legal team bought at a Fayva shoe store in
Aurora, and those shoes, unlike the pair worn by Buckley, were a closer
match to the print on the door, Johnson says. With the shoe print
evidence crumbling, a hung jury couldn’t reach a verdict and the
beleaguered legal team from the DuPage County state’s attorney’s office
dropped charges in 1987 against Buckley, who had spent three years
behind bars. Cruz and Hernandez were convicted twice in the killing and
spent more than a decade in prison before Cruz was pardoned and
prosecutors dismissed charges against Hernandez.
A convicted killer named Brian
Dugan confessed to killing Nicarico, his DNA was found on the girl’s
body, and the shoes he wore matched the print on the door, Johnson says.
Buckley, Cruz and Hernandez shared a $3.5 million settlement from
DuPage County after filing a federal civil rights case. Four sheriff’s
deputies and three former prosecutors were indicted on charges of
perjury and obstruction of justice for their roles in the investigation,
but they were acquitted.
In his book, Johnson praises many
people, including law enforcement officers, prosecutors and other
lawyers, who did the right thing to bring justice in that case. His
four-page acknowledgments thank dozens of people, including the St.
Charles Writing Group to which he belongs. The book, which takes its
title from a William Somerset Maugham quote, is dedicated to his wife of
nearly 42 years, Amy, and their daughter Andrea and son Philip. Johnson
grew up in Villa Park, graduated from Willowbrook High School and
Illinois Wesleyan University, and got his law degree from Drake
University in Des Moines, Iowa.
Initially thinking he might want a
career in politics, Johnson was elected to one term as Kane County
state’s attorney before focusing on his private law practice. The book
includes humorous stories about lawyers and other cases he worked on,
but he focuses on the Nicarico case.
“Everyone who was involved got
overwhelmed in this case,” says Johnson, who says his heart goes out to
the Nicarico family. “I have kids. It’s impossible to empathize with
what they must have gone through. But you can try, and it’s painful.”
What happened during those resulting murder trials changed the face of criminal justice in Illinois.
“Opponents of the death penalty
can look to the Nicarico case as the single most important event that
led to the end of capital punishment in Illinois,” Johnson writes. “And I
was lucky to be a part of it.”
Gary Johnson talks about his book, with stories of him going to jail and defending a man wrongfully charged with killing Jeanine Nicarico of Naperville. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer Show photos & videos Burt Constable Updated 5/17/2021 7:48 AM During more than four decades as an attorney, Gary V. Johnson of St. […]
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