In some ways, after all the pain and turmoil, the people of Naperville, Ill., ended up yesterday right back where they started.

It was almost five years ago that 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico was abducted in daylight from her Naperville home, raped and murdered, unleashing a long series of political, legal and social controversies that engulfed the town. Three men were arrested eventually for the girl's murder; two of them were convicted by a jury and shipped to death row. They remained there even after another man confessed to the crime.

Defense attorneys for the convicted men said the case had been tainted by local electoral politics; prosecutors and the Nicarico family contended that the confession was a lie. The story received extensive local media attention, and was chronicled last year in The Washington Post.

Now the case has been sent back to its beginning. Finding that the accused men's rights were violated during the jury trial, the Illinois Supreme Court yesterday threw out the murder convictions of Alejandro (Alex) Hernandez and Rolando Cruz and ordered that the Nicarico case be returned to county prosecutors for a new trial. The state high court's vote was 6-0.

The decision means that prosecutors in DuPage County, which is just west of Chicago, may soon have to decide whether to refile charges against Hernandez and Cruz or simply drop the case against them. In the meantime, the Illinois attorney general's office must decide within the next three weeks whether to appeal yesterday's ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We have no power to do anything at the moment," said Robert Kilander, the prosecutor in charge of the Nicarico case. "If this action {is not appealed}, then we'll deal with it."

DuPage prosecutors last year decided to dismiss charges against the third defendant in the case, Stephen Buckley. (The jury at the original trial had been unable to reach a verdict on Buckley.) But until yesterday's ruling, the prosecutors were fighting vigorously attempts by defense attorneys to free Cruz and Hernandez on grounds that new evidence suggested they were innocent.

The new evidence centers on confessions by convicted rapist and murderer Brian Dugan, who is serving several life sentences in Illinois, to the Nicarico crimes. Dugan told state police investigators that he kidnaped and murdered Nicarico, and investigators produced some evidence corroborating his claim. DuPage prosecutors have disputed Dugan's story.

The Illinois Supreme Court's decision did not stem from the Dugan evidence, which has not yet been presented to the high court for consideration. Instead, the court found that Cruz and Hernandez were denied a fair trial because prosecutors presented their evidence in a way that made it impossible for the defendants to confront their accusers.

"What they found was that the way the case was presented to the jury, both through evidence and argument, neither Mr. Cruz nor Mr. Hernandez was capable of receiving a fair trial," said John Hanlon, who worked on Cruz's case as an appellate public defender before entering private practice.

For now, Cruz and Hernandez remain on death row. "The ball is in the state's court if they want to retry these guys," said Timothy M. Gabrielsen, the appellate public defender who represents Cruz.

If a new trial is pursued, the sleepy, close-knit town of Naperville will again endure the tumult and debate that has surrounded the case from its beginning.

On the other hand, if the charges against Cruz and Hernandez are dropped, the most shocking and politically controversial murder in the town's long history will remain officially unsolved.

Either way, what many in Naperville have said they wanted -- for the case to fade from memory -- seems unlikely any time soon. "I think the community would like to see the thing resolved so that the family does not have the ongoing reminders of a tragedy," said Jim Newkirk, a member of the Naperville city council.