CHICAGO (AP) — A man convicted in the 1957 abduction and slaying of a 7-year-old girl in northern Illinois couldn't have committed the crime, a prosecutor said Friday, marking a stunning turnaround in one of the oldest unsolved crimes in American history to make it to trial.
DeKalb County State's Attorney Richard Schmack said his court-ordered, six-month review of the case included new evidence that firmed up an alibi for Jack McCullough, who was initially cleared by investigators but then charged in 2011.
Schmack said evidence convinced him it was a "manifest impossibility" that McCullough could have been anywhere nearby when Maria Ridulph vanished on Dec. 3, 1957, while she was playing outside in the snow near her home in the small community of Sycamore.
The girl was choked and stabbed to death in an alley, and her body was found months later, dumped in woods more than 100 miles away. The slaying remained a mystery for decades.
McCullough, now 76, was a neighbor at the time of the killing. He had long ago been cleared by authorities before a renewed effort was launched to solve the case. He was found guilty in 2012, and sentenced to life in prison.
Schmack said in a court filing that he joined in the defendant's motion to set aside the guilty verdict. A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.
New evidence included recently subpoenaed phone records that proved McCullough made a collect call to his parents from a phone booth in the lobby of the Post Office in downtown Rockford, Illinois, about 35 miles from Sycamore, just minutes after the abduction took place.
That had always been McCullough's professed alibi, though the precise location of the phone had previously come under doubt.
Testimony that the abduction had taken place earlier was also discredited, Schmack said, meaning there was no possibility McCullough could have committed the crime and driven to Rockford in time to place that call.
"I know there are people who will never believe that he is not responsible for the crime," said Schmack, whose own family has lived for 30 years in the small Sycamore neighborhood where the crime occurred. "But I cannot allow that to sway me from my sworn duty."
His findings, he said, also cast doubt on the fairness of a photo array that authorities prepared for a witness who identified McCullough as the suspect a half-century later.
Schmack was not the state's attorney who prosecuted the case; he was elected around the time of the trial's conclusion. His office was ordered to conduct the review as part of a push by McCullough's attorney for a new trial.
"We're very pleased," said McCullough's attorney, public defender Tom McCulloch.
Their appeal will be back in court on Tuesday, and McCulloch is hopeful his client could be released soon.
"Given this filing, hopefully this comes to a rapid and favorable conclusion," he said.
But Maria's sister remains convinced that McCullough is guilty.
"It's all very upsetting for us," said Patricia Quinn of El Paso, Illinois, her voice cracking with emotion. "We're just trusting in what the judge will do Tuesday at the hearing."
McCullough's conviction had put to rest some of the decades of anguish endured by Maria's family and friends.
At his sentencing in 2012, McCullough turned to them in the courtroom and proclaimed his innocence.
"I did not, did not, kill Maria Ridulph," said the silver-haired McCullough, who grew up in Sycamore and was 17 when Maria died. "It was a crime I did not, would not, could not have done."