Man convicted in 1957 murder could not have committed the crime, says prosecutor

Jack McCullough was convicted of killing 7-year-old Maria Ridulph decades after her disappearance. But new evidence casts doubt on that conviction.

Danielle Guerra/Daily Chronicle via AP/File
Jack McCullough, shown here in January, is serving a life sentence after being sentenced in 2012 for the 1957 death of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph. On Friday, DeKalb County State's Attorney Richard Schmack says his review of evidence has convinced him that McCullough could not have committed the crime.

The case of Maria Ridulph, a 7-year-old girl who was killed in northern Illinois in 1957, has once again gone cold.

While DeKalb County State's Attorney Richard Schmack says he wishes the case could be solved, he announced on Friday that a man convicted of abducting and killing Maria couldn’t have committed the crime.

Mr. Schmack announced the findings Friday after reviewing new evidence in the case of Jack McCullough. He says the evidence supports Mr. McCullough’s alibi and has promised not to oppose his request to dismiss the conviction

"Hopefully this comes to a rapid and favorable conclusion," Tom McCulloch, McCullough’s public defender, said on Friday. Mr. McCulloch added that the appeal will be back in court Tuesday and is hopeful McCullough could be released soon.

The court-ordered, six-month review was prompted by McCullough's push for a new trial and comes amid a wave of exonerations nationwide. The Christian Science Monitor's Henry Gass reported last month that a record number of people were exonerated in 2015.

Experts say there’s a simple reason behind it: More prosecutors are actively looking for wrongful convictions. 

There were 149 exonerations last year, according to a new report from the National Registry of Exonerations, based at the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor. 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.

McCullough was convicted in 2012 in the killing of Maria, who vanished from the small community of Sycamore on Dec. 3, 1957. Her body was found several months later – and her death remained a mystery for decades. McCullough, who’s now in his 70s, was a neighbor at the time.

Maria’s sister, Patricia Quinn, says she remains convinced that McCullough is responsible for the murder and that he "therefore belongs in prison."

"I know there are people who will never believe that he is not responsible for the crime," Schmack said in a statement. "But I cannot allow that to sway me from my sworn duty."

Schmack said he was convinced of McCullough innocence by recently subpoenaed phone records that proved McCullough called his parents from a city about 35 minutes away from Sycamore just minutes after the abduction took place. He said it was a "manifest impossibility" that McCullough could have been anywhere near Maria when she went missing.

While McCullough awaits his court hearing on Tuesday, his step-daughter Janey O'Connor says she's eager for him to return to Washington. But Ms. O'Connor told The DeKalb Daily-Chronicle that she understands "the wheels of justice move slowly."

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

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