For over four decades as a lawyer, Gary V. Johnson of St. Charles has compiled a rare legal trifecta. As the Kane County State Attorney, he sent people to jail. As a defense attorney, he saved a man falsely accused of one of the suburbs most notorious murders from a possible death sentence. And then there was that moment where Johnson had his mug and fingerprints pulled, was handcuffed, had his legs shackled, and was taken to a small cell in the DuPage County Jail.
“I’m well-rounded,” Johnson, 68, quipped, as he sits in his office at Camic Johnson’s Aurora law firm, which he started with partner David Camic in 1987. Johnson’s desk is covered up. of several layers of paperwork and its two visitor chairs contain boxes of legal work. His wall features photos of shortstop Luis Aparicio and second baseman Nellie Fox, Hall of Fame players of his beloved Chicago White Sox. A Teddy Roosevelt plaque reads: “Aggressive struggle for the right is the noblest sport the world has to offer.”
A small photo frame contains evidence of Johnson’s “aggressive fight for good” – the reservation photos of his face and profile for the time he and co-counsel Carol Anfinson were convicted of contempt of court for refusing to do unnecessary research for a legal point they never made. They had greater concerns when 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 with the 10-year-old rape and murder. Jeanine Nicarico from Naperville.
The details of this defense echo the majority of Johnson’s new memoir titled “Luck is a Talent: The True Story of a Trial Lawyer Experience Defending an Innocent Man Charged with Murder.”
The Nicarico tragedy began on February 25, 1983, when Jeanine was home sick from school. Her parents at work repeatedly checked her that day before someone kicked their house door in an apparent burglary. Sexually assaulted and beaten to death, the girl’s body was discovered two days later in a park.
Over a year later, Buckley, Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez were arrested and charged with murder, kidnapping and sexual assault.
After spending four years as Deputy State Counsel for Kane County, Johnson was in private practice, handling civil cases for the Clancy, McGuirk and Hulce law firm, but seeking to work on a case. of criminal defense.
“Boy, do I have a case for you,” said fellow lawyer and friend Cliff Lund, who called on Johnson to help him defend Buckley in the case, for which prosecutors were calling for the death penalty.
Upon meeting Buckley in DuPage County Jail, “I had a feeling he was innocent,” Johnson recalls, adding that the evidence quickly reinforced that belief.
“I liked Steve from the start,” writes Johnson, who says he remains friends with Buckley.
Buckley’s fate centered on an imprint of the shoe used to knock on the Nicaricos door.
“I was about to learn more about shoe prints than I ever thought possible,” writes Johnson of the detailed work it took to prove Buckley’s innocence. “The sole had a name.”
The “New Silver Cloud” sole was found in shoes Buckley bought at a Payless store, but it was also found in shoes Buckley’s legal team purchased at a Fayva shoe store in Aurora, and these shoes, unlike the pair worn by Buckley, were a closer match to the print on the door, Johnson says. With the shoe print evidence collapsing, a suspended jury failed to reach a verdict and the besieged legal team at the DuPage County State Attorney’s Office dropped the 1987 charges against Buckley , who had spent three years behind bars. Cruz and Hernandez were twice convicted of the murder and spent more than a decade in prison before Cruz was pardoned and prosecutors dismissed the 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 was wearing 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 complaint. Four sheriff’s deputies and three former prosecutors were charged with perjury and obstruction of justice for their role in the investigation, but they were acquitted.
In his book, Johnson praises many people, including law enforcement officers, prosecutors and other lawyers, who have done what it takes to bring justice in this case. His four-page acknowledgments go to dozens of people, including the St. Charles Writing Group to which he belongs. The book, which takes its title from a quote from William Somerset Maugham, 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 received his law degree from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
Originally thinking he might want a career in politics, Johnson was elected to a term as Kane County State Attorney before focusing on his private law practice. The book includes humorous stories about lawyers and other cases he’s worked on, but it focuses on the Nicarico case.
“Everyone involved has been overwhelmed in this matter,” says Johnson, who says his heart goes to the Nicarico family. “I have kids. It’s impossible to understand what they had to go through. But you can try, and it’s painful.”
What happened in those murder trials changed the face of criminal justice in Illinois.
“Opponents of the death penalty may regard the Nicarico affair as the most important event that led to the end of the death penalty in Illinois,” writes Johnson. “And I was lucky enough to be a part of it.”