DeKALB – Presented as an example of how wrongful convictions affect society, the case of Jack McCullough, who was exonerated of the 1957 murder of Maria Ridulph last year, was examined during the Northern Illinois University Law Review’s annual symposium.
Former DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack – who was the prosecutor for McCullough’s petition for post-conviction relief and sought to overturn his life sentence after evidence previously excluded at trial gave him an alibi – was the featured speaker of the 26th annual event, titled “Making Murderers: Legal Implications of Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty.”
In his presentation, Schmack included a statement from Associate Judge William Brady, who dismissed McCullough’s murder charge.
“[State’s attorneys] are in the center of everything,” Brady said April 15, 2016. “They have a requirement to prosecute those who they believe sufficient evidence exists to convict. They have the responsibility to not prosecute where there is insufficient evidence even though they may feel the person is guilty of the offense. They have the responsibility to dismiss those cases where they believe the person is innocent.”
FBI investigators’ reports of Ridulph’s kidnapping in December 1957 gave a detailed timeline leading up to her disappearance and cleared McCullough, who was reported to have been in Rockford at the time.
However, McCullough was investigated in 2008 and ultimately convicted of Ridulph’s murder after a statement from his mother claimed that he was responsible.
Schmack said that the FBI’s reports clearing him as a suspect were inadmissible under Illinois law since they were considered police reports. An appellate court eventually determined that McCullough’s mother’s statement should not have been allowed, pegging its admission as a harmless mistake.
“It’s not because police reports are unreliable, but they can’t be used in a criminal case,” Schmack said.
Additional speakers at the symposium commented on what they felt are various flaws of the justice system, such as the use of the death penalty as a means to coerce a confession.
“The death penalty is consistently used as leverage, most of the time as a bargaining chip, even in cases where there are no enhancing factors that make it a death penalty case,” said Anette Sikka, assistant professor of legal studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “Depending on the region you’re in, it will be put on the table to force someone’s hand and you can imagine what kind of pressure that puts on a defendant.”
John Hanlon, executive director of the Illinois Innocence Project, a group that seeks justice for people it feels are wrongfully convicted, said that from 1994 to 2003, 16 men were released from Illinois’ death row because of actual innocence.
He added that other causes of wrongful convictions include eyewitness misidentifications, false confessions, unreliable forensic evidence, government misconduct, incentivized testimony, ineffective defense, perjury and reasonable doubt.
“All of these things are part and parcel to the justice system, and you don’t get to say later that you want a new trial and want to challenge the system,” Sikka said. “The system isn’t really designed to address errors, and it’s so hard to convince anyone that a mistake may have been made.”