updated 7/28/2009 6:14:50 PM ET 2009-07-28T22:14:50

A convicted murderer pleaded guilty Tuesday to the 1983 slaying of a 10-year-old girl in a notorious case that helped lead to landmark reforms in Illinois' capital punishment system.

Shackled at the wrists and feet, Brian Dugan stood before a judge and admitted murdering Jeanine Nicarico 26 years ago. He told the judge no one else was involved.

The case shined a light on a flawed death penalty system in Illinois after two other men were initially sent to death row and spent more than a decade in prison for the crime. After they were cleared as evidence increasingly pointed to Dugan, seven law enforcement officials went on trial for their handling of the case. All were acquitted.

Former Gov. George Ryan cited the case as one of several that led to his decision to stop all Illinois executions in 2000. The state's death penalty moratorium remains in place, though death sentences may still be issued.

"A little girl died a horrible death, a family was twisted and tormented by the criminal justice system for a quarter century, but it's time to move on," said Scott Turow, a best-selling author and lawyer who handled the appeal of one of the men convicted in the slaying.

For those entwined in the case, that seems unlikely.

Snatched from her home
The facts are heartbreaking. Jeanine was home sick from school in suburban Naperville when someone kicked down her door and snatched her. She struggled so desperately her fingernails left scratches on a wall. Her raped and beaten body was found two days later in a nearby nature preserve.

Dugan, already convicted of two murders, including that of a 7-year-old girl, has maintained that he alone raped and killed Jeanine, and DNA tests implicate him.

He had long offered to plead guilty if prosecutors agreed not to seek his execution. They made no such promises Tuesday, so a jury or judge will decide whether to sentence him to death or life in prison.

Many who remember the case, along with those who prosecuted it, still believe that Dugan had help.

"I truly believe others were involved," neighbor Shirley Steck said. "Where are they? They're running around enjoying their lives."

The Nicaricos, who have since moved from Illinois, rarely speak publicly of their daughter's death. But when they have, they, too, have suggested the men initially charged were involved.

After the discovery of Jeanine's body, authorities focused quickly on three men: Rolando Cruz, Alejandro Hernandez and Stephen Buckley. Their trial resulted in convictions and the death penalty for Cruz and Hernandez. A hung jury led to charges against Buckley being dropped.

Wrongful prosecution lawsuits
The convictions were followed by reversals, new trials and an acquittal of Cruz and dismissal of charges against Hernandez. Cruz, Hernandez and Buckley eventually received $3.5 million from DuPage County to settle wrongful prosecution lawsuits.

"This case ... raised the public's concern about the reliability of the criminal justice system and caused unprecedented scrutiny of the implementation of the death penalty," said Jeremy Margolis, the former head of the state police who later represented Hernandez.

Ryan pardoned Cruz in December 2002 and emptied death row shortly before leaving office in 2003, commuting most prisoners' sentences to life.

The case has woven its way through Illinois politics, even touching on former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's appointment of Roland Burris to President Barack Obama's vacant U.S. Senate seat last year.

Burris, as Illinois attorney general in the early 1990s, fought to preserve Cruz's conviction even as his assistant attorney general pleaded for the case to be dropped.

Cruz told WLS-TV in Chicago before Dugan's guilty plea that the truth may never come out. Cruz had hoped that Dugan, charged in 2005, would go to trial.

"What he did was not just to Jeanine, it was to a community, to a city, to a state, to a people of a country," he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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