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Possible release of Illinois convict points to new willingness to revisit old cases

The name Jack McCullough could soon be added to the growing list of exonerees after a prosecutor dug back into the initial investigation leading to his 2012 conviction for the 1957 murder of a 7-year-old girl.

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    Jack McCullough (r.) listens as DeKalb County Judge William Brady speaks in the DeKalb County courtroom in Sycamore, Ill., Tuesday.
    Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/AP
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An examination of the investigation that led to the conviction of an Illinois man for a 1957 murder could lead to his release, potentially adding one more exoneration to the growing list of people whose convictions have been overturned in the United States.

Jack McCullough was arrested in 2011 and convicted in 2012 for the murder of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph, his neighbor in the town of Sycamore, Ill. Maria was found choked and stabbed to death in a forest in 1957, making Mr. McCullough’s 2012 guilty verdict one of the oldest US cold cases to ever reach trial.

Now, the process that led to Mr. McCullough’s conviction four years ago is coming under question. DeKalb County State's Attorney Richard Schmack filed a biting review last week that cast doubt on the entire investigation and prosecution of McCullough. Following the examination of new evidence and old case files, Mr. Schmack said that he is now convinced that McCullough could not have killed Maria.

In recent years, prosecutors around the country have become increasingly willing to revisit old convictions in light of new evidence or new technology to analyze old evidence. A record 149 wrongful convictions were overturned last year, as the Monitor's Henry Gass reported in January:

Since 2011, the annual number of exonerations has more than doubled – the country now averages close to three exonerations a week – and this surge has been mirrored by an increase in prosecutor involvement.

"Most prosecutors want to do the right thing. Prosecutors don't want to keep innocent people in prison," says Daniel Medwed, a professor at Northeastern University School of Law. "It's not in the interest of prosecutors and society to have an innocent person in prison, because it also means a guilty person is free."

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So far, prosecutor efforts to double-check cases remains sporadic, experts say, but it has the potential to maintain the surge in exonerations and even prompt front-end changes that could prevent wrongful convictions from happening in the first place.

In McCullough's case, the review revealed that members of law enforcement involved in the initial investigation had ignored key pieces of evidence, according to Schmack.

“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,” the prosecutor wrote in his analysis of the case.

Among other documents and reports, Schmack cited phone records showing that McCullough made a collect call at a phone booth in Rockford, Ill. – 35 miles away – during the time period that Maria was abducted in Sycamore before her murder.

McCullough appeared in court Tuesday hoping for freedom following Schmack’s assessment, but Judge William Brady only agreed to begin looking into the possibility of his release.

“Your honor, I've been in prison locked up now for almost five years. I'm innocent, and I can prove I'm innocent," McCullough said, per the AP. “There has to be an end to this somewhere.”

While Judge Brady said that McCullough’s claims that his constitutional rights were violated warranted further action, he said the convicted man’s immediate release was out of the question.

“There's a process,” he said. “It's not black and white.”

Janey O’Connor, McCullough’s stepdaughter, was disappointed by the decision not to release her kin.

“He thought he was going home, she told the AP after the hearing. “If you don't have power and money, you get ground in the wheels (of justice).”

The family of Maria remains convinced of McCullough’s guilt, and are let down by the sudden shift in the case years after they thought it closed.

“(We) feel totally betrayed ... abandoned by the world and its system,” Maria's brother, Charles, told the AP.

A release for McCullough is still in question, but if exonerated, he could join the more than 1,700 people pardoned since 1989. According to a University of Michigan report, there were a record 149 known exonerations in 2015, up from 139 in 2014 and 87 in 2013.

Although the upward trend in exonerations could end up working in McCullough’s favor, overturning a murder conviction remains a difficult process to complete, especially nearly 60 years after the crime.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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