An Illinois Man’s Long Struggle for Freedom


An Illinois Man’s Long Struggle for Freedom

Rolando Cruz

was only a teenager when he was sentenced to death in Illinois in 1985 for the rape and murder of a 10-year-old girl.  Wrongfully condemned, Cruz spent more than a decade on death row before a jury finally acquitted him 15 years ago this month. 

The case took another turn last year when

Brian Dugan pled guilty

to the murder and was sentenced to death. According to prosecutors, Dugan’s DNA profile was consistent with crime scene evidence,

The injustice began for Cruz after the body of a 10-year-old girl was found in a wooded area several days after she had disappeared. Under pressure from the community and upcoming elections, the police hastened to find a suspect and picked up

Alejandro Hernandez

, who inculpated Rolando Cruz and a third man, Dugan, in return for small sums of money. Throughout the investigation, Cruz and Hernandez implicated each other for cash rewards. Innocent defendants

made incriminating statements or false confessions

in about 25% of DNA exoneration cases.  These confessions are usually the result of external factors, including duress, coercion, intoxication, diminished capacity, mental impairment, ignorance of the law, fear of violence, the actual infliction of harm, the threat of harsh sentence, and misunderstanding the situation.  Otherwise lacking significant substantial evidence, the prosecution capitalized on Cruz’s false confessions.

The injustice Cruz subsequently endured was further compounded when the sheriff’s detectives’ testified that Cruz had reported “visions” of the murder. The detectives contested that while recounting his “vision,” Cruz alluded to details of the crime, proving his involvement. The alleged “vision statement” was never recorded, yet it was entered into evidence and central to Cruz’s conviction. The Innocence Project has recommended reforms in the practice of suspect interrogation, including

mandatory electronic recording

, which has been shown to reduce the number of false confessions. 

A new episode of PBS “Frontline” examines the issue of false confessions and wrongful convictions.

Watch the full episode online


Northwestern University’s David Protess and Larry Marshall assigned their students to investigate Rolando Cruz’s case. After three trials and three convictions, Cruz was finally granted a new bench trial. DNA tests showed that spermatozoa found near the crime scene could not have come from Cruz or Hernandez and that Brian Dugan could not be excluded as a source.

Rolando Cruz was officially exonerated on November 3, 1995 after spending over 10 years in prison for an egregious crime he didn’t commit. There have been 30 DNA exonerations in the state of Illinois where Cruz was wrongfully convicted. False confessions have played a role in 14 of those cases and government misconduct in eight. 

Other Exoneration Anniversaries Nov. 1 to 13:

Jeffrey Deskovic

, New York (Served 15.5 Years, Exonerated 11/2/2006)

David A. Gray

, Illinois (Served 20 Years, Exonerated 11/6/1995)

Bernard Webster

, Maryland (Served, Exonerated 11/7/2002)

Walter Smith

, Ohio (Served 10 Years, Exonerated 11/8/1996)

Bruce Dallas Goodman

, Utah (Served 19 Years, 11/9/2004)

Joseph White

, Nebraska (Served 19 Years, 11/10/2008

David Brian Sutherlin

, Minnesota (Served 0 Years, 11/13/2003)

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