(WGN-AM)- In a legal gambit to save his life, Brian Dugan may plead guilty as early as Tuesday to the 1983 murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico of Naperville, the Tribune has learned.

A source said that defense attorneys are planning to tell DuPage Judge George Bakalis at a status hearing that Dugan, 50, will plead guilty to the horrific crime and then let a 12-person jury decide if he should receive the death penalty, which the state will seek. Dugan and his defense team believe Dugan has a better chance of receiving a life sentence if a jury only determines his sentence, not his guilt as well.

Defense attorneys in December 2008 said in open court that Dugan had for several months been considering such a plea, though there has been concern that he could change his mind at any time, even between now and Tuesday.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys this week would not comment on a possible plea, citing a gag order Bakalis has imposed on the case.

Dugan, of Aurora, already is serving two life sentences and 155 years in prison for two other murders and several other crimes.

He and one of his defense attorneys had a private meeting Monday with Bakalis to discuss mitigation issues. Mitigation issues are those designed to be brought up at sentencing hearings.

Defense attorneys have said it could be counterproductive to argue Dugan's innocence to the same jury that later could decide whether he should be given the death penalty. If there is overwhelming evidence of guilt, it could impact the jury during the sentencing phase of the trial.

Defense attorneys have also said in court that they may argue that Dugan's previous claims of guilt, although never official, helped get two men originally charged with the crime, Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez, off of Death Row and pushed the state and the nation into a greater debate over merits of the death penalty.

DuPage County State's Atty. Joseph Birkett declined Tuesday to speculate on Dugan's possible plea next Tuesday, but said, "We are preparing for anything the defense decides to do."

Dugan has offered previously to plead guilty in exchange for an agreement that would automatically give him a life sentence, but Birkett has refused that offer, contending that Dugan deserves the death penalty.

If the case goes to a sentencing hearing, Birkett will be able to openly discuss all of Dugan's past crimes, specifically the two murders for which he is serving life sentences, those of a 7-year old Somonauk girl and a 27-year old Kane County nurse.

Dugan's trial originally was scheduled for last January, but was delayed until September after defense attorneys claimed they weren't prepared.

Jeanine Nicarico was reported missing on Feb. 25, 1983, after she had stayed home alone from school that day because she was sick with the flu. Her body was found dumped in underbrush alongside the Illinois Prairie Path two days later.

(The Chicago Tribune contributed to this story)

Get the latest news at the top and bottom of every hour on Chicago's WGN Radio 720