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Crime & Courts

Convicted murderer Jack McCullough gets more time to make a case

DeKalb County judge continues hearing on request for post-conviction relief in 1957 murder case

SYCAMORE – A DeKalb County judge said Wednesday that he saw no reason at this point to reconsider convicted murderer Jack McCullough’s request for another trial, but he granted him more time to make his case.

McCullough’s attorney, Tom McCulloch, requested the hearing to get DeKalb County Judge Robert Pilmer to reconsider his September dismissal of McCullough’s hand-written petition to reverse his murder conviction. McCulloch is the DeKalb County public defender who represented McCullough at trial.

McCullough was sentenced to life in prison in December 2012 for the 1957 murder of Maria Ridulph, 7, of Sycamore, closing the oldest cold case in U.S. history. McCullough, a 75-year-old Pontiac Correctional Center inmate, has claimed new evidence could prove his innocence and that prosecutors violated his constitutional rights at trial by withholding evidence that would have helped his defense.

Pilmer said Wednesday that the reasoning provided in the latest court filings wasn’t enough to merit a hearing on the matter. However, the judge said he would give McCullough a month to build a stronger case.

The rehashing of Maria Ridulph’s death has been a painful and confusing processing for her family, her brother Charles Ridulph said.

“We were really hoping that after the judge’s recent ruling that this was going to be the end of it,” Charles Ridulph said. “This really caught us by surprise.”

DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack filed a statement Monday that said his office won’t participate in any proceedings regarding the motion for reconsideration because it was too early in the post-conviction process for prosecutors to weigh in. Schmack appeared in court Wednesday to reiterate that position.

He declined to comment after the hearing, saying it would be inappropriate.

But the State’s Attorney’s lack of involvement so far has the Ridulph family concerned.

“[Schmack] responded by saying it’s really a technical thing,” Charles Ridulph said. “The reason he’s not responding is because he doesn’t want it to appear they’re moving it forward to another stage in the process.”

Still, Charles Ridulph questioned if politics were at play.

“From the very beginning, I’ve been shocked at the amount of politics involved at that courthouse,” he said.

Pilmer was curious about McCulloch’s involvement in the case because the public defender hadn’t been appointed to represent McCullough in the post-conviction process. In fact, Pilmer had previously denied McCullough’s request to have the DeKalb County Public Defender’s Office appointed in September.

“At this point, Mr. McCullough is representing himself,” Pilmer said Wednesday.

But McCulloch said he “still retains responsibilities,” after having represented McCullough during trial.

Pilmer dismissed McCullough’s request for post-conviction relief in September, calling it “frivolous and without merit,” according to court documents. McCullough wrote the petition by hand from prison without help from a lawyer.

After the dismissal, McCulloch filed motions asking the judge to reconsider that decision based on new evidence.

In the motion for reconsideration, McCullough raised questions about the use of jailhouse informants, whether prosecutors failed to turn over evidence that could have been helpful to the defense at trial and other arguments similar to those that he and his lawyers raised during his 2012 trial and subsequent appeal. He also claimed newly discovered evidence would cast doubt on the testimony provided by two witnesses at the McCullough’s 2012 trial.

One point of contention centers on the recollections of Jan Swafford, 74, who was known as Jan Edwards in 1957 and was dating McCullough, who was known as John Tessier at the time.  

McCulloch argued his client’s civil rights were violated when Seattle police failed to disclose information about Swafford’s statements, which would have supported Jack McCullough’s recollection of the night Maria Ridulph went missing, court records show.

McCullough didn’t appear in court Wednesday and no arrangements had been made as of Wednesday for him to appear at future hearings, McCulloch said.

The case will return to court Nov. 30.

McCullough has maintained his innocence and has claimed phone records, FBI reports and comments from military recruiters show he was in the Rockford area when the girl was abducted.

“We just want it to be over,” Charles Ridulph said. “We really want it to be over, and we’re hopeful that [Judge Pilmer] will put this to rest.”

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