SYCAMORE – Jack McCullough wants a judge to clear his name.
At a hearing Thursday, an attorney representing the 76-year-old Seattle man told DeKalb County Circuit Court Judge William Brady that McCullough is innocent in the 1957 kidnapping and slaying of Maria Ridulph, a 7-year-old Sycamore girl.
“He is simply a man who wishes to be rid of the stain of this conviction,” said Russell Ainsworth, an attorney with the Exoneration Project.
McCullough was convicted in connection with Ridulph’s killing in 2012 and sentenced to life in prison; his murder conviction had been upheld by an Illinois appellate court in 2015. He didn’t appear in court Thursday; members of Ridulph’s family sat in the gallery.
He was freed in April after DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack concluded that FBI reports from the time of the girl’s disappearance, combined with new evidence showing the location of a Rockford pay phone from which McCullough is believed to have placed a collect call that evening, proved that McCullough had an alibi.
Brady vacated McCullough’s conviction and the charges against McCullough were dismissed.
Ainsworth told the judge that he intends to show that McCullough is innocent and had nothing to do the crime.
The judge asked Ainsworth several questions about the laws regarding a certificate of innocence, including whether the certificate would bar further prosecution in the case. When Brady vacated McCullough’s conviction in April, the charges were dismissed without prejudice, leaving open the possibility that they could be reinstated in the future.
“So when we say a ‘certificate of innocence’ what we’re really saying is a ‘certificate of innocence at this point in time so he can go to the Court of Claims and get a sum of money,’ ” Brady said.
State law caps the amount awarded by the Illinois Court of Claims to those who were wrongfully convicted at $85,350 for those who serve five years or fewer behind bars – as McCullough did.
Brady will consider McCullough’s request for a certificate of innocence at a hearing at 1:30 p.m. Dec. 5.
At that hearing, Ainsworth said he plans to call Nancy Steblay, a professor of psychology at Augsburg College, as an expert witness. Steblay has spent more than 25 years researching eyewitness memory.
Kathy Sigman Chapman’s eyewitness testimony was used to convict McCullough at trial. Chapman was with Maria on Dec. 3, 1957, shortly before she was abducted and saw the man that gave her a piggyback ride. Steblay’s testimony would serve to debunk Chapman’s identification of McCullough, Ainsworth said.
“There’s a host of scientific reasons why we should put less weight in Kathy’s identification of Jack,” he said.
Ainsworth and the team at the Exoneration Project – a free legal clinic at the University of Chicago Law School dedicated to representation of the wrongfully convicted – also plan to introduce evidence that two of the three jailhouse informants who testified against McCullough at trial were given incentives by prosecutors and police to do so and that those incentives were hidden from the judge hearing the case.
In a 28-page motion filed earlier this month, Ainsworth went through what he and the team see as the evidence that shows McCullough is innocent.
Brady also noted that state law requires the court in considering a certificate of innocence to take into account the difficulties of proof caused by the passage of time, the death or unavailability of witnesses, the destruction of evidence and other factors.
“The judge here is clearly saying that he’s keeping an open mind and wants to hear the evidence and wants to make a determination based on the evidence, not supposition, not what’s happened before, but what the evidence shows at this point in time,” Ainsworth said outside the courtroom after the hearing.
Charles Ridulph, Maria’s older brother, didn’t attend Thursday’s hearing. His sister, Pat Quinn, Maria’s older sister, sat in the gallery with her husband, Bill, and others. Her brother, who has served as the point person for the family inside and outside of court for years, had “washed his hands of this,” she said. In some ways, it was better he wasn’t there, Quinn said.
“It makes me sick,” she said. “I felt very strongly we need our own representation.”
The Ridulph family has been opposed to Schmack’s actions in the case. They believe that McCullough is guilty and that Schmack should be representing their interests as victims of a heinous crime.
“I just wanted to stand up and shout, but I can’t,” Quinn said.
The family’s biggest concern is that something will happen that will make it impossible to retry McCullough.
Ainsworth spent at least 30 minutes after the hearing talking with Quinn about the case, the evidence and what was next.
“Frankly, when I saw the family, I didn’t know how they’d react toward me. I’m the advocate for the person that they believe killed their loved one. I was really heartened that they truly wanted to know what the truth is here. And the first thing that I got was a hug. ... That was moving and special,” Ainsworth said. “I think we share an interest in the truth. We may differ about our conclusions, but we both want to know what happened and is Jack McCullough guilty of this crime.”