SYCAMORE, Ill. (AP) — The allegation of a badly mishandled investigation, combined with newly discovered evidence in one of the nation's oldest crimes to ever reach trial, means 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 has a chance to go free.
At a hearing Tuesday, 76-year-old Jack McCullough pleaded with a judge to quickly consider his bid for freedom, emphasizing that he's been in prison for almost five years and declaring he can prove his innocence. McCullough added, "There has to be an end to this somewhere."
DeKalb County Judge William Brady told McCullough he would need to be patient and that a court appointment of an attorney for him is the first of many steps in a process that could lead to his conviction being tossed and a new trial being ordered.
The hearing took place near where Maria Ridulph was abducted on Dec. 3, 1957, 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.
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 and agreed that McCullough's conviction should be vacated. McCullough, a neighbor of Ridulph's in the 1950s, was 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 at 6:57 p.m. Dec. 3, 1957, from a phone booth in downtown Rockford around the time Ridulph was abducted 35 miles away in Sycamore — between 6:45 p.m. and 6:55 p.m.
Besides those records, Schmack also reviewed police reports and other old documents that he says were improperly barred from evidence during McCullough's trial. Some were only recently uncovered, he said.
Some of those documents discredited testimony suggesting the abduction had taken place earlier, Schmack determined, meaning there was no possibility McCullough could have committed the crime and then driven to Rockford in time to place that call.
Schmack, who did not prosecute the case because he wasn't elected until the end of the trial, suggested investigators focused unduly on McCullough because of his name in the 1950s. He went by John Tessier at the time and one childhood witness said someone wearing a sweater who called himself "Johnny" had given Ridulph a piggyback ride before her disappearance.
"The only real evidence to support the theory of the defendant's guilt is that his name is John and his sisters claimed he owned a sweater," Schmack wrote.
Q: There was no physical evidence. So what evidence helped to convict McCullough at the 2012 trial?
A: Kathy Chapman, a childhood friend of Ridulph's who had been playing outside with her, 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 the piggyback ride.
But in his filing, Schmack said the photographic array was "suggestive in the extreme," with the photo of McCullough standing out from the others. McCullough was the only one not wearing a suit coat and the background in his photo was dark while the others were light. Smack 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."
An inmate who befriended McCullough behind bars after his 2011 arrest also testified that McCullough had killed Ridulph — though accidently. Smack alleged that testimony likely constituted perjury.
Q: Why was the case reopened years later with McCullough as a prime suspect?
A: One factor 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 in 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 crime. At his sentencing, McCullough turned to her relatives in the courtroom and said, "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 years. Judges have enormous discretion. Brady told McCullough he had to follow the three-stage process that could result in a new trial.
Q: If McCullough didn't do it, who did?
A: McCullough was briefly a suspect, as were 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.