Constable: Nicarico case at center of lawyer's diverse career

During more than four decades as an attorney, Gary V. Johnson of St. Charles has compiled a rare legal trifecta. As Kane County state's attorney, he sent people to prison. As a defense attorney, he saved a man falsely accused of one of the suburbs' most notorious murders from a potential death sentence. And then there was that time Johnson had his mug shot and fingerprints taken, was handcuffed, had his legs shackled and was shuffled off to a small cell in the DuPage County jail.

“I'm well-rounded,” quips Johnson, 68, as he sits in his office at the Aurora law firm of Camic Johnson, which he started with partner David Camic in 1987. Johnson's desk is covered with layers of paperwork, and his two chairs for visitors hold boxes of legal work. His wall sports photos of shortstop Luis Aparicio and second-baseman Nellie Fox, Hall of Fame players for his beloved Chicago White Sox. A plaque with the likeness of Teddy Roosevelt reads, “Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords.”

A small picture frame holds evidence of Johnson's “aggressive fighting for the right” — the booking photos of his face and profile for that time he and co-counsel Carol Anfinson were held in contempt of court for refusing to do some unnecessary research for a legal point they never pushed. They had bigger concerns while working on their defense of Steve Buckley, a 21-year-old high school dropout who lived with his parents on the east side of Aurora and was charged in the high-profile rape and murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico of Naperville.

Details of that defense take up the majority of Johnson's new memoir titled, “Luck is a Talent: The True Story of a Trial Lawyer's Experience Defending an Innocent Man Charged with Murder.”

The Nicarico tragedy began on Feb, 25, 1983, when Jeanine was home sick from school. Her parents, away at work, checked in on her a couple of times that day before someone kicked in the door of their home in an apparent burglary. Sexually assaulted and beaten to death, the girl's body was discovered two days later in a park.

More than a year later, Buckley, Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez were arrested and charged with murder, kidnapping and sexual assault.

Having spent four years as an assistant state's attorney for Kane County, Johnson was in private practice, doing civil cases for the firm of Clancy, McGuirk and Hulce but looking to work on a criminal defense case.

“Boy, have I got a case for you,” said fellow attorney and friend Cliff Lund, who invited Johnson to help him defend Buckley in the case, for which prosecutors were seeking the death penalty.

Meeting Buckley in the DuPage County jail, “I got a pretty good sense he was innocent,” Johnson remembers, adding that the evidence quickly reinforced that belief.

“I liked Steve from the get-go,” writes Johnson, who says he remains friends with Buckley.

Buckley's fate centered around a print of the shoe used to kick in the Nicaricos' door.

“I was about to learn more about shoe prints than I ever thought possible,” Johnson writes as a way of introducing the detailed work it took to prove Buckley's innocence. “The sole had a name.”

The “New Silver Cloud” sole was found in the shoes Buckley bought at a Payless store, but it also was found in shoes Buckley's legal team bought at a Fayva shoe store in Aurora, and those shoes, unlike the pair worn by Buckley, were a closer match to the print on the door, Johnson says. With the shoe print evidence crumbling, a hung jury couldn't reach a verdict and the beleaguered legal team from the DuPage County state's attorney's office dropped charges in 1987 against Buckley, who had spent three years behind bars. Cruz and Hernandez were convicted twice in the killing and spent more than a decade in prison before Cruz was pardoned and prosecutors dismissed charges against Hernandez.

A convicted killer named Brian Dugan confessed to killing Nicarico, his DNA was found on the girl's body, and the shoes he wore matched the print on the door, Johnson says. Buckley, Cruz and Hernandez shared a $3.5 million settlement from DuPage County after filing a federal civil rights case. Four sheriff's deputies and three former prosecutors were indicted on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice for their roles in the investigation, but they were acquitted.

In his book, Johnson praises many people, including law enforcement officers, prosecutors and other lawyers, who did the right thing to bring justice in that case. His four-page acknowledgments thank dozens of people, including the St. Charles Writing Group to which he belongs. The book, which takes its title from a William Somerset Maugham quote, is dedicated to his wife of nearly 42 years, Amy, and their daughter Andrea and son Philip. Johnson grew up in Villa Park, graduated from Willowbrook High School and Illinois Wesleyan University, and got his law degree from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

Initially thinking he might want a career in politics, Johnson was elected to one term as Kane County state's attorney before focusing on his private law practice. The book includes humorous stories about lawyers and other cases he worked on, but he focuses on the Nicarico case.

“Everyone who was involved got overwhelmed in this case,” says Johnson, who says his heart goes out to the Nicarico family. “I have kids. It's impossible to empathize with what they must have gone through. But you can try, and it's painful.”

What happened during those resulting murder trials changed the face of criminal justice in Illinois.

“Opponents of the death penalty can look to the Nicarico case as the single most important event that led to the end of capital punishment in Illinois,” Johnson writes. “And I was lucky to be a part of it.”

  Taking the title for his book from a quotation by English writer William Somerset Maugham, attorney Gary Johnson of St. Charles says his distinguished legal career included lots of good fortune. Brian Hill/
  In the highest-profile case of his career, lawyer Gary Johnson argued that a shoe from his defendant didn't match the shoe that kicked in the door of the Naperville home where a 10-year-old was kidnapped and later found murdered. Brian Hill/
  As a prosecutor, Gary Johnson sent people to prison. As a defense attorney, he kept others from prison. And he also spent four hours in jail after one judge found him in contempt of court. Brian Hill/
  The idea for Gary Johnson's memoir came from his wife of nearly 42 years, Amy, who convinced him that the stories he told her could fill a book. Brian Brian Hill/
  While his memoir focuses on the trials stemming from the murder of Jeanine Nicarico of Naperville, Gary Johnson also tells of lighthearted moments during his career as a lawyer. Brian Hill/
  Gary Johnson, who defended one of the men wrongly accused of killing Jeanine Nicarico of Naperville, says the outcome of the cases was a key event in ending the death penalty in Illinois. Brian Hill/
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