SYCAMORE – A DeKalb County judge on Friday refused to make a ruling on Jack McCullough's request for immediate release from Pontiac Correctional Center, where he is serving a life sentence for the 1957 murder of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph.
Chicago lawyers Gabriel Fuentes and Shaun Van Horn of Jenner & Block, appointed this week to represent McCullough, filed a motion Thursday requesting DeKalb County Judge William Brady vacate McCullough's murder conviction or release him on bond.
But Brady, who earlier in the week had set the next hearing date in the case for April 15, said the matter was too important to rush.
"A trial is a marathon. You want me to go from step three to step 26 and not touch all the bases in between," Brady said. "I can't do that."
McCullough, 76, waived his right to be in court Friday, and instead allowed Fuentes and Van Horn to appear in his place. Despite Brady's ruling early on that releasing McCullough on Friday would be premature, the attorneys continued with multiple pleadings for their client to at least be granted bond for the remainder of his case.
"I thought a lot about faith on the way here and on the faith all of us place in the criminal justice system, in our courts, in our police and our prosecutors, and our defense attorneys," Fuentes said. "It is a fundamental faith that the system is going to get it right, and judge, that didn't happen here."
After a series of fervent requests from McCullough's attorneys to set the man free based on DeKalb County State's Attorney Richard Schmack's finding last week that he was innocent, Brady maintained he needed more time to consider the case's history in its entirety, not just McCullough's recent motions.
Earlier this week, he set the next hearing date in the case for April 15.
"I have some obligation to make sure I understand the position of both parties," Brady said. "I don't just have your opinion or your client's opinion, and the state's opinion. I also have the opinion of a trial judge and an appellate court. I think it's premature for me to start commenting on what I think about any of that."
McCullough was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison in 2012, and his murder conviction was upheld by the Second District Appellate Court in 2015.
One key finding of both the trial court and appellate court – that police reports from the time when Maria was abducted should have been excluded from the trial – was ignored by Schmack.
Schmack agreed with McCullough that the reports prove his alibi, that he was in Rockford at the time of the kidnapping. Schmack says that according to the timeline established by police reports from 1957 and '58, Maria was kidnapped between 6:45 and 6:55 p.m., and recently unearthed records from Illinois Bell show that McCullough – who at the time was 18 and known as John Tessier – made a call from the downtown Rockford Post Office at 6:57 p.m. that day, Schmack said.
He also said that his predecessor as state's attorney, Clay Campbell, and police investigators, had worked to hide the truth from judges and grand juries by knowingly introducing false testimony and withholding evidence they knew would exonerate McCullough.
Campbell was present in court on Friday, but has declined to comment on the latest developments in the case. He has said before that he hoped that Schmack would defend the conviction.
Schmack's complete disavowal of it has led Charles Ridulph, Maria's older brother, to request that a special prosecutor be appointed, a request that McCullough's lawyers have asked Brady to deny.
Brady on Friday ruled it was too early to strike Ridulph's request for a special prosecutor because he told the family Tuesday that he would give them until April 15 to hire a lawyer.
"I don't think it would be fair for me now to alter what I said," Brady said.
Ridulph declined to comment after the hearing, but was confident the family would be represented by attorney next week. Now that McCullough has two attorneys working on his behalf, he could be set free April 15, Schmack said.
"He can't be released until his sentence is vacated," Schmack said. "If his sentence is vacated then the court can consider bond and consider a release on his own recognizance, and I didn't object to that, so that could happen."
Brady said there have been no cases like McCullough's to set a precedent for how a judge should respond to the most recent filings, so he will take his time reading and reviewing every motion before making a decision.
"I have seven days," Brady said. "Give me a break."
Brady also said that he understood the case was important to many people in Sycamore and around the country.
"I go to bed at night, recently, thinking about this case – as to the right and the wrong and what my role is," Brady said. "It is not lost on me the importance of this case to this community."