SYCAMORE, Ill., April 15 (UPI) — A former Illinois man convicted four years ago in one of the nation’s coldest cold murder cases was released from prison Friday after a careful review of new evidence persuaded a judge to vacate the conviction.
Jack D. McCullough was arrested for the 1957 murder of young Maria Ridulph more than a half century after it happened, in 2011. The subsequent trial, believed to be the biggest cold case prosecution in American history, ended with McCullough’s conviction.
Less than four years into his life sentence, though, McCullough walked out of the DeKalb County Jail early Friday afternoon after Judge William Brady said sufficient evidence warrants a new trial and dismissed the 2012 conviction.
Prosecutors can refile charges, but it’s unknown whether that will happen — given McCullough’s advanced age and because the person responsible for prosecuting him believes he’s innocent.
The Ridulph family, though, did ask the judge Friday for a special prosecutor to be assigned to the case. If that happens, McCullough could be retried. A court hearing was scheduled for April 22 to consider that request.
The possibility that McCullough might have been wrongly convicted garnered national attention last month when DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack publicly stated his opinion that he couldn’t possibly be guilty.
Schmack said his opinion is based largely on newly-obtained telephone records from the night of Dec. 3, 1957, the night of Ridulph’s disappearance, that indicate McCullough was using a pay phone 50 miles away from the kidnapping site.
The prosecutor also cited other discrepancies in the case as grounds for McCullough’s release.
Brady cited three main reasons for his decision Friday — the aforementioned phone evidence, misidentification by a witness, and the fact that prosecutors made promises during the 2012 trial to a jail inmate who claimed he heard McCullough confess to the crime.
“These new factors may not have raised to the level of reasonable probability, but collectively, when they are agreed to by the state, this court does believe this defendant has met his burden with post-conviction petition and will grant request for a new trial,” Brady said.
Upon his release Friday, McCullough, 76, smiled and hugged ecstatic family members. The prisoner, who was just 17 at the time of the murder, has long maintained his innocence.
On the other side of the courtroom, relatives of Maria Ridulph, a brother and sister, didn’t react much to Brady’s decision. Last month, though, Maria’s brother Charles seemed to question Schmack’s motives.
“We’ve met with [Schmack] two times in the last six months and they have not been good meetings,” he said. “He’s been working with the defense attorney almost from the start and he’s made no qualms about it.”
Ridulph’s family and authorities still believe McCullough, who left Illinois, changed his name and joined the military not long after the girl’s murder, is the killer — pointing out that he was convicted of the crime and that conviction was upheld by an appellate court.
The new evidence in the case, however, was apparently enough to persuade a DeKalb County prosecutor and judge that there is sufficient doubt about his guilt. Further, it should be noted that McCullough was investigated and cleared as a suspect back in 1958.
“The Ridulph family has no doubt suffered mightily in this matter, but innocence has suffered as well,” McCullough’s attorney, Gabriel Fuentes, wrote in a motion filed this week.