A look at new doubts about conviction in 1957 murder

The allegation of a mishandled investigation, combined with newly-discovered evidence in one of the nation’s oldest unsolved crimes to ever reach trial means that a 76-year-old former security guard convicted and sentenced to life in the 1957 slaying of a 7-year-old girl in a northern Illinois could soon go free.

A hearing in the case is scheduled for Tuesday in a DeKalb County courthouse near where Maria Ridulph was abducted in small-town Sycamore as she played outside in the snow. She was stabbed and choked to death in a case that made national headlines at the time.

In a dramatic turnaround, DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack said in a scathing filing last week that a six-month review turned up serious missteps during the investigation and the overall prosecution of the case. He also said new evidence supporting an alibi for Jack McCullough, a neighbor of Ridulph’s charged some 55 years after the murder. He was convicted at a bench trial in 2012.

Here’s a look at the case and what could happen next:

Q: What’s the new evidence?

A: It includes phone records showing that McCullough — as he claimed at trial — made a collect call to his parents from a phone booth in downtown Rockford, 35 miles from Sycamore, minutes after the abduction took place. Schmack said last week that testimony suggesting the abduction had taken place earlier — which may have given McCullough the opportunity to kidnap the girl first — was also discredited. That meant, he said, that there was no way McCullough could have committed the crime and then driven all the way to Rockford in time to place that call.

“It is a manifest impossibility for (McCullough) to have been in Sycamore at 6:45 and also have made a phone call in downtown Rockford at 6:57,” Schmack wrote. “Thousands of pages of improperly excluded police reports more than 20 years old contain a wealth of information pointing to McCullough’s innocence, and absolutely nothing showing guilt.”

Q: What else raised questions about McCullough’s guilt?

A: Schmack, who was not the state’s attorney involved in prosecuting the case because he was elected around the time of the trial’s conclusion, criticized how evidence gathered in the 1950s was processed after the case was reopened, how timelines were determined and how evidence was presented to grand juries.

“Even without clear and convincing evidence of actual innocence, which there is, and even if there were some actual untainted evidence of guilty, which there is not, justice would still demand that the conviction be vacated based upon the unfair treatment Defendant received from start to finish, even if unintended by all concerned,” he wrote.

Q: There was no physical evidence. So what evidence did help convict McCullough at the 2012 trial?

A: Kathy Chapman, a childhood friend of Ridulph’s who had been playing outside with her at the time, identified McCullough. At trial, Chapman, then in her 60s, picked out a photo of a 17-year-old McCullough and said she was sure he had given her friend a piggyback ride just before she vanished.

But in his filing, Schmack said the photographic array was “suggestive in the extreme.” He added, “Her selection in 2010 of a black-and-white headshot of him as a teenager is clearly an unintentional and tragic mistake on her part.”

Q: Why was the case reopened at all so many years later with McCullough as a prime suspect?

A: One of the factors was an alleged deathbed comment by McCullough’s mother in 1994 — passed on to police by his half-sister in 2008 — that she knew her son had killed the girl. McCullough was arrested on July 1, 2011 at a retirement home in Washington state where he worked as a security guard.

McCullough has consistently denied having anything to do with the girl’s murder. At his sentencing, McCullough turned to her relatives sitting in the courtroom and proclaimed his innocence, telling them, “It was a crime I did not, would not, could not have done.”

Q: Could McCullough be released and, if so, how soon?

A: He could be freed, though it is unclear when. The process of assessing and reassessing evidence in cases like this where serious doubts emerge about a conviction can take weeks, months or sometimes even years. Judges have enormous discretion, so if the judge presiding over the McCullough’s case finds the new evidence overwhelming, he could potentially release McCullough Tuesday or within days.

Q: If McCullough didn’t do it, who did?

A: McCullough was briefly a suspect, like more than 100 others, in the 1950s. As the months became years, many Sycamore residents assumed the killer must have been someone passing through town — perhaps a truck driver. But if it turns out McCullough is not the killer, chances seem remote that new suspects will emerge or, if they do, that they are still living.

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