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Death Row On Trial

Since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, 38 states have put it back on their books. Many people believe it to be the appropriate punishment for heinous crimes, assuming the convicted party is guilty.

That is not always the case; 75 people who were wrongly convicted have been freed from death row, where they were awaiting execution for crimes they did not commit.

When ten-year-old Jeanine Nicarico was raped and murdered in 1983, police arrested Rolando Cruz, Alex Hernandez, and Stephen Buckley. With only a false confession, no physical evidence, and no eyewitnesses, prosecutors convicted Cruz and Hernandez.

Even one of the lead detectives in the case believed the men were innocent.

Detective John Sam recalls, "I told my bosses on numerous occasions that these three men had nothing to do with this crime. That we totally have the wrong men and have to go out and look at someone else."

Meanwhile, the real murderer, career criminal Brian Dugan, was arrested for another crime and confessed to the murder.
Authorities still did not release Cruz or Hernandez.

Finally, during a third trial, a police officer admitted that the most crucial piece of evidence, Cruz's confession, was fabricated. Cruz and Hernandez were freed and exonerated after spending ten years on death row.

For Rolando Cruz, "It's not easy. People tell me, you're free now. Free? How? Psychologically I'm not free from it all."

Four police officers and three prosecutors have been charged with fabricating evidence and will go on trial.

Cruz hasn't recovered. "Every day you think about what happened... When you see police officers sometimes you're leery of walking past them or driving by them. And it's something that has become an instinct, our second nature, so to speak... It's something that they -- they embedded a scar so deep, it's almost impossible to get rid of it."

On death row, he says, "I used to think about how I'm going to get out of there and what else I had to learn... just not give up and keep making it. I used to always have to pray that I'd be able to go to sleep that night and pray I was able to wake up the next day."

Cruz says someone close to him helped: "My mother told me in the beginning, when I was first sentenced to death, that I couldn't give up, I had to keep going, it was no longer about me or her... She said now that it was about everyone, it was about the people now. It was about trying to help people and trying to get justice to understand what it really is doing to people, and I just had to keep making it. So I did."

Lawrence Marshall, a professor at Northwestern University Law School who represented Cruz, says what happened is "an amazing phenomenon... It would be unthinkable to convict somebody for a crime they didn't convict. But...when you have cimes that evoke great passion in the community, when you have a defendant who is maybe not sympathetic, whether it's because of minority status, because of some slight criminal history or whatever else, the presumption of innocence goes out the window."

Marshall adds: "It tells me that the system as it's currently instituted has a grievously high error rate."

He says the system needs better safeguards to protect the innocent: "The issue is that the judicial system, the way the implementation of the death penalty now stands, is incorrect, and that needs to be corrected."

©1998 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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