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clock Jan 18, 2006 5:56 pm US/Central

Not Guilty Plea Entered In Jeanine Nicarico Case

(AP) WHEATON, Ill. A judge entered a not guilty plea Wednesday on behalf of a man accused of killing 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico in the case that became a national symbol of flaws in the death penalty.

Brian Dugan, 49, was indicted by a DuPage County grand jury in November for kidnapping Nicarico from her Naperville home during a 1983 burglary, sexually assaulting her and bludgeoning her to death.

DuPage County Circuit Judge George Bakalis entered the not guilty plea on Dugan's behalf after he refused to enter his own plea.

After the arraignment, DuPage County State's Attorney Joseph Birkett said he would seek the death penalty because of the heinous nature of the crime.

Dugan's longtime defense attorney, Thomas McCulloch, stepped aside from the case Wednesday, saying he is a witness in the trial and that the high-profile case is too much for one person. Public defender Robert Miller was assigned to represent Dugan.

Before stepping down, McCulloch said he filed a motion for a special prosecutor. Prosecutors have said Dugan initially confessed to killing Nicarico in 1985, when Birkett was an assistant in the DuPage County State's Attorney's office, which oversaw the case.

"Without being overly dramatic, this is war," McCulloch said. "Any defendant has a right to a fair trial."

Judge Kathryn Creswell also left the case on Wednesday and it was assigned to Bakalis. Creswell had worked in the DuPage County State's Attorney's office when three men were initially charged in the slaying. Those charges were later dropped.

On Feb. 25, 1983, Nicarico was home alone from school recovering from the flu when she was abducted. Her body later was found in a nature preserve.

Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez were convicted of the crime and condemned to death in 1985, but appeals courts over the following decade twice reversed the convictions.

The same jury that convicted Cruz and Hernandez in 1985 failed to reach a verdict against the third man, Stephen Buckley. Charges against him were dropped in 1987.

Cruz was acquitted during a third trial in 1995 after spending almost a decade on death row. Prosecutors later dropped the charges against Hernandez.

Seven DuPage County prosecutors and law enforcement officers were charged in 1996 with lying and fabricating evidence against Cruz. All seven were cleared in 1999 after a high-profile trial.

The furor over Cruz's acquittal helped to spark a fierce debate in Illinois over the death penalty and played a key role in then-Gov. George Ryan's decision to suspend all executions and clear out the state's death row in 2003 of all 167 inmates.

After Cruz's acquittal, Dugan emerged as the chief suspect in Nicarico's slaying. Prosecutors said he confessed to the crime in 1985 when he and his attorney negotiated guilty pleas in two other murders. He is serving two life terms at Pontiac Correctional Center.

Cruz, Hernandez and Buckley later sued DuPage County. They settled the lawsuits for $3.5 million in September 2000.

Dugan's next hearing is set for Feb. 7.

(© 2006 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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