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Rolando Cruz won back his freedom nearly 14 years ago, but his painful past is never far away.
Cruz hopes that will change as a DuPage County jury begins hearing evidence today in the death penalty sentencing hearing of Brian Dugan, a long-imprisoned killer who admits he alone killed 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico of Naperville in 1983.
Cruz spent nearly 12 years in prison - more than half of that time on death row - before his Nov. 3, 1995, exoneration during his third trial for the child's slaying.
His post-prison life has been a struggle. He's recently unemployed, has plowed through his settlement money and is getting divorced for the third time. He has five children, one of whom he has never seen. He's devoted to them and faces a battle to keep custody of two.
Now 46, Cruz's dark eyes well with tears, and he begins to shake when describing his long journey and whether he thought this day would ever come.
"The sad part is that it took this long," he said. "I knew eventually I'd get out. There was no way I was going to allow myself - an innocent person - to be convicted of a crime I never committed."
Back then, Cruz was a 20-year-old Aurora gang member whom DuPage County authorities sought out as a potential informant. A "street punk" who grew up in an abusive home and had nonviolent brushes with the law, Cruz said he fed police false leads so that he could mess with them and try to get a $10,000 reward.
"It was no more real to us than a movie," he said. "To lie was no big deal. We had no respect for the law."
His cruel prank backfired. On March 9, 1984, Cruz and two other Aurora men were indicted. There was never solid physical evidence or eyewitnesses. A so-called "vision statement," in which police accused Cruz of making incriminating statements, was discredited. So were the jailhouse snitches who came forward through the years.
All three men eventually were exonerated. Cruz recalls his day - the welcome chill of the winter air on his face during those first steps as a free man, the warmth of his mother's embrace, the media frenzy.
"I remember it was beginning to snow," he said. "Everyone was like, 'It's so cold out here.' I said, 'It's beautiful.' People say, 'What was it like on death row?' I don't know what to tell them. I was in survival mode. I wasn't living."
Seven DuPage law enforcement men involved in his wrongful prosecution were cleared in 1999 of conspiring to railroad him. Cruz said he tries to live his life without hate, but he is convinced of their guilt. Afterward, Cruz was awarded a $3.5 million settlement, most of which is gone.
He lost more. A girlfriend gave up their baby in a sealed adoption after his initial arrest. He still longs to meet his daughter, now 25. His father died while he was in prison. Cruz couldn't attend the funeral.
He still thinks about the Nicarico family.
"I understand why they thought I was guilty," he said. "If I were them, I would have thought I was guilty, too. I don't know what it feels like to be the family of a victim, but I pray to God at some point they will have closure. I've apologized for the lies I said, but I suffered and paid a lot for those lies. I paid with 4,473 days of my life."
Dugan offered to plead guilty to Jeanine's murder in November 1985 while negotiating life prison sentences for two later sex slayings. Prosecutors, who didn't believe him at the time, refused to make the deal, contingent on Dugan being spared the death penalty. New advances in DNA testing later proved his guilt. At his sentencing, Dugan will argue he tried to do right by Cruz long ago.
"That's a total lie," Cruz responded. "Brian Dugan did it to save himself. He didn't all of a sudden care about saving humanity. It was about saving his own behind."
After he won his freedom, Cruz traveled the world speaking out against the death penalty and how his case changed Illinois law. Former Gov. George Ryan highlighted Cruz's case while ordering a moratorium in 2000 on executions; a couple years later, Ryan commuted all death sentences to life prison terms.
"I don't believe it's right at any point and time for the state to kill," Cruz said. Dugan, he added, will suffer more with a life term. "I think long-term suffering is far better than the easy way out."
Cruz is aware some people think he might have been peripherally involved in the crime, that he somehow knew Dugan, who also lived in Aurora but was seven years older. Cruz said the first time he saw Dugan was in the 1990s, in court.
Cruz used his settlement money to buy a house in a small Wisconsin community with his third wife and focused on raising his family. Life was good for a while, he said, but the marriage fell apart and he is struggling to find work.
To make matters worse, Cruz said he lost the anonymity the small town once offered after Dugan's defense team subpoenaed him through his local courts to be a potential witness in the sentencing hearing. He said squad cars routinely pass his house.
"When will it finally end?" Cruz said. "I don't want pity. I want acceptance for who I am and what I am. I am a good person. I've grown up from my mistakes. My fighting days are over. I'm determined to one day find what I'm looking for."