Roland Burris Involved in Troubling Court Case

Roland Burris, the former Illinois attorney general whom Gov. Rod Blagojevich has appointed to fill Barack Obama's Senate seat, has been widely praised as a man of honesty and integrity whose many years in public office have been free of scandal. Obama himself described Burris as "a good man and fine public servant."

In the Illinois lexicon, political scandal seems to be narrowly defined as using one's office to enrich oneself, as Blagojevich stands accused of doing. Burris, no doubt, has never done that. He has, however, done something that, in my view, is far worse: He ignored an explicit warning from an assistant attorney general that a young man sentenced to be executed in the name of the people of Illinois was likely innocent.

The story reminds me of a novel I first read as a teenager—Harold Bell Wright's "The Shepherd of the Hills," set in the Ozarks, not far from where I grew up. "In the hills of life," the novel begins, "there are two trails. One lies along the higher sunlit fields where those who journey see far, and the light lingers even when the sun is down; and one leads to the lower ground, where those who travel, as they go, look always over their shoulders with eyes of dread, and gloomy shadows gather long before the day is done."

This part of Burris's story begins in 1991, when a principled young lawyer, a former prosecutor named Mary Brigid Kenney, joined the attorney general's office. It was there that she found her way to the higher sunlit fields, while Attorney General Burris chose the trail leading to the lower ground.

Kenney's first assignment was to represent the interests of the state in the appeal of a case known as People v. Cruz. In 1985, Rolando Cruz had been convicted of rape and murder, along with a co-defendant, Alejandro Hernandez. Both men were sentenced to death for the crime. The conviction rested on dubious testimony by DuPage County authorities, who swore that Cruz had told them he had a dream about the crime, a dream that the prosecution said amounted to a confession. Cruz's jury accepted that, but eight months later, a serial killer named Brian Dugan confessed that he alone had committed the crime. Unlike Cruz's purported dream, Dugan's confession seemed iron-clad, rich in details that only the killer could have known.

By all rights, Cruz should have been exonerated at that point, but other forces were at work: his exoneration would have been embarrassing for the authorities involved in the original case, particularly state's attorney James Ryan, who had a burning desire to become governor. The conviction stood despite Dugan's confession.

Both Cruz and Hernandez won new trials as a result of judicial error, and their cases were separated, meaning they would be retried separately. Again, both were convicted. Hernandez was sentenced to life, but Cruz again got death. It was at this point that prosecutor Kenney was assigned to Cruz's case. She believed strongly in the integrity of law enforcement and assumed that any allegations of police and prosecutorial misconduct swirling around this case were either unfounded or greatly exaggerated. "I thought nothing so bad could happen in our justice system," she later reflected. "This is the United States. We have a Bill of Rights."

Yet after Kenney read the voluminous record of the case, it was apparent to her that an innocent man had been railroaded onto death row. She turned to her colleagues for advice, but found no comfort there. The only suggestion from her colleagues was that she write a weak appellate brief and hope for the best. But she could not abide that. "I knew it was terribly wrong," she recalled recently. "I started to wonder what kind of people I was working with."

Kenney wrote a confidential memo urging Attorney General Burris to acknowledge error in the case, thus paving the way for Cruz to get yet another trial, but to no avail. She concluded she had no choice but to abandon the career to which she had so long aspired.

"I cannot sit idly by as this office continues to pursue the unjust prosecution of Rolando Cruz," she wrote in an impassioned letter of resignation to Burris, who assigned the case to another lawyer in the office. Nine months later, to Kenney's great consternation, the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed Cruz's conviction. But the story still wasn't over. As a result of Kenney's courageous stance, intense attention was now focused on the case, both by the media and by the local community. The deans of six Illinois law schools and a group of prominent former prosecutors filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of a rehearing for Cruz. In 1994, the state Supreme Court bowed to the pressure and reversed the second conviction, awarding Cruz yet another trial, his third.

As the trial approached in 1995, DNA technology had advanced sufficiently to link Dugan and Dugan alone to the crime. The trial nonetheless commenced, though it ended abruptly when a DuPage County sheriff's lieutenant admitted on the stand that officers who claimed to have informed him of the dream statement at the time Cruz supposedly made it in fact could not have informed him, because he was on vacation. An incredulous judge acquitted Cruz, removing him from legal jeopardy after 11 years, 34 weeks and four days behind bars for a crime he did not commit. In 2002, Cruz received a gubernatorial pardon based on innocence.

Burris retired with what those unfamiliar with his conduct in the Cruz case might call dignity. Kenney went on to a rewarding career championing the legal interests of abused and neglected minors and disabled adults. Like the heroine in Harold Bell Wright's novel, she found the light lingering long after the sun had set.

Roland Burris Involved in Troubling Court Case | U.S.