SYCAMORE – Loud cheers erupted from the courtroom gallery Friday as a judge declared Jack McCullough guilty on all three counts against him.
McCullough, who prosecutors said was responsible for the Dec. 3, 1957 abduction and death of Sycamore 7-year-old Maria Ridulph, remained emotionless as Kane County Associate Judge James Hallock delivered his verdict.
A sentencing hearing was set for Nov. 30. DeKalb County State's Attorney Clay Campbell said after the verdict that he wouldn't speculate on sentencing at this point, but said McCullough can choose whether to be sentenced under 1957 or current-day statutes.
During closing arguments Friday morning, Prosecutor Victor Escarcida said Maria never got to see eight candles on her birthday cake and never enjoyed a full life.
"Judge, this is an angel," Escarcida said while holding up a photo of Maria. "This is murder," he said while holding another photo of her remains, which were discovered in April 1958 in a wooded area of Joe Daviess County.
"... It is never too late for justice," Escarcida said.
Interim Public Defender Tom McCulloch questioned the state's "buffet-style approach" to Maria's cause of death, with witnesses offering multiple choices for how McCullough was said to have killed Maria, including suffocation, strangulation or stabbing.
McCulloch challenged the credibility of the jailhouse inmates who testified this week, claiming McCullough shared with them details of Maria's death and the case against him. McCulloch also questioned whether Kathy Chapman's identification of McCullough in a photo line-up could carry much weight as it came decades after she saw the man named Johnny approach her and her friend.
"Why is it that 50 years later, this process becomes more accurate or reliable?" McCulloch asked.
He said there were too many missing or broken links in the state's story, with "stupid" stories from jail inmates and contradicting accounts from Tessier's sisters regarding their mother's statement before her death.
Prosecutor Julie Trevarthen brought up the difference between describing a face and recognizing one, which is what Chapman was able to do so many years later.
"Kathy waited over 50 years to have the answer to that multiple choice question put in front of her," Trevarthen said.
As for the testimony from inmates Christopher Diaz, Kirk Swaggerty and John Doe, she said McCullough chose those witnesses, not the state.
"Crimes conceived in hell don't have angels as witnesses," Trevarthen said. For their testimony to be false, she added, the three would have to have telepathy to share some of the same details, because all three men were never together.
"Today isn't about the defendant. Today is about Maria," she said in closing.
After an hour and a half of closing arguments, Hallock gave his verdict, saying he found the state's witnesses – including the inmates, Chapman and a forensic anthropologist – credible.
Memories are clouded with the passage of time, he said, "but that's to be expected after these many years."