Brian Dugan — the romance of remembered evil

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In her later years, my mother was given to pronouncements. One concerned South Africa — more specifically the noisy campaign to treat apartheid South Africa as a pariah nation by shunning its sports teams, disinvesting in its industries, and refusing to recognize its all-white government.

There were many Americans who asserted all this was right and proper, and my mother dismissed them as posturers. For their fashionable but superficial regard for South Africa could scarcely be compared to her fierce and lifelong relationship to that country. In 1904 her mother, when but a maiden of 18, had been smitten by a dashing young Boer officer posted to the world's fair in Saint Louis. My mother grew up listening to her mother recall that summer; she'd gazed with awe at the astonishing calligraphy flourished in the note of fond farewell that Pieter left behind. If such a man was a Boer, how could others lightly judge? There was nothing trivial or affected about my mother's regard for South Africa. It was stubbornly and utterly romantic.

On Tuesday, Brian Dugan pleaded guilty to the 1983 murder of ten-year-old Jeanine Nicarico. On Wednesday Tribune columnist John Kass revisited an ancient memory.

The tangled tale of the Nicarico murder has taken many strange turns in the past 26 years, and it's no slur against Kass to say he's had almost nothing to do with reporting them. But as he distinguished himself with other stories, other Tribune writers — in particular his fellow columnist Eric Zorn, joined eventually by the Tribune editorial page — have chronicled Du Page County's repeated attempts to convict three innocent men for that murder, the years two of those men spent on death row for a murder they didn't commit, and the part these misbegotten prosecutions played in discrediting the death penalty in Illinois in the eyes of former governor George Ryan, who finally suspended it.

None of that interested Kass. His mind rolled back to his own brush with Dugan, the time in 1985 when another of Dugan's victims had been found dead, seven-year-old Melissa Ackerman. Because by now he had a criminal history, Dugan quickly became a suspect — in fact in the days since Ackerman disappeared he'd been arrested in connection with the kidnapping and rape of two teenage girls. With Dugan locked up in the Kane County Jail, Kass visited his room in a boarding house in Aurora.

Twenty-four years later, Kass recalls "breathing evil." It's not clear from the column whether he knew he was breathing evil at the time, but he certainly knows it now. "Evil had left its sign," Kass writes, "on the knife sheath, the river mud, everything it touched."

Like my mother's encounter with the dashing young Boer she never actually met, Kass's encounter with Dugan's room, if not Dugan himself, left him contemptuous of anyone less viscerally connected to the matter at hand.

"In the 24 years since I stood in that room, breathing evil," he writes, "Dugan's complex case has been interwoven with death-penalty politics, like the hair fibers found in his sleeping bag. And with so much political noise and chest-thumping, it's easy to get sidetracked, to think of evil in the abstract, to speak in platitudes about justice, to become obsessed with process like so many clerks."

To the extent Kass's colleagues at the Tribune have added to the noise and the platitudes, I suppose he's ashamed of them.

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