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Crime & Courts

Jack McCullough granted certificate of innocence

Counsel, author say Seattle man mulling which next steps to take

Matthew Apgar - mapgar@shawmedia.com
Jack McCullough, left, smile in court with attorney Russell Ainsworth of the Exoneration Project on Tuesday, April 5, 2017 at the DeKalb County Courthouse in Sycamore.  McCullough is seeking a certificate of innocence in the 1957 murder of Maria Ridulph.  Judge William Brady will reach a verdict on Wednesday, April 12.
Matthew Apgar - mapgar@shawmedia.com Jack McCullough, left, smile in court with attorney Russell Ainsworth of the Exoneration Project on Tuesday, April 5, 2017 at the DeKalb County Courthouse in Sycamore. McCullough is seeking a certificate of innocence in the 1957 murder of Maria Ridulph. Judge William Brady will reach a verdict on Wednesday, April 12.

SYCAMORE – Pat Quinn didn’t flinch as Jack McCullough was granted a certificate of innocence Wednesday in the Dec. 3, 1957, slaying of her sister, 7-year-old Maria Ridulph.

McCullough, 77, of Seattle wasn’t present. Quinn was motionless as Judge William Brady explained the reasoning for the ruling he was about to make, which would effectively reopen the case of Maria’s murder. Quinn’s husband, Bill, occasionally looked down and closed his eyes, cheeks flushed.

“The ultimate question that must be answered: Is it more likely that the defendant would be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, or is it more likely he would be found not guilty, and not responsible for Maria Ridulph’s disappearance and murder?” Brady said. “Based on the changes in the law, and the consideration of the additional evidence now available to this court, the latter of these questions is true.”

Against her husband’s advice, Quinn stopped momentarily outside the courtroom.

“Do I feel Jack McCullough killed my sister?” Quinn said. “Yes, I do. I have nothing more to say.

“I’m sorry. This is just disappointment.”

State’s Attorney Rick Amato lamented the loss of what he said might have been the Ridulph family’s last chance at justice.

“Jack McCullough, his loved ones and his lawyers have talked a lot of about justice in the last year or so,” Amato said in a written statement. “Maria Ridulph, her brother, Chuck, and her sister, Pat, don’t have justice. Last Thursday might well have been our last chance at justice for Maria. I did my best to speak for her – to ask questions we all want to ask – to get answers we all crave. I wanted to be sure Maria’s voice was heard.”

Aisha Davis, an attorney from the Chicago-based Exoneration Project, was McCullough’s lone representative in court Wednesday. She said McCullough is undecided whether he will file a lawsuit or seek compensation.

“It’s very powerful that the court that initially convicted Mr. McCullough is the one that’s now saying he’s innocent,” Davis said outside the courthouse. “We’re all very glad that he doesn’t have to worry about this being over his head, and he can finally move on.”

McCullough’s attorney, Russell Ainsworth, of the Chicago-based civil rights law firm Loevy & Loevy, said he’d go over McCullough’s options with him Wednesday night. He could only speculate on what damages a successful wrongful conviction suit could bring.

“It would be worth justice, and whatever a jury believes that’s worth – justice for a man ripped from his home and branded a murderer nationwide,” he said.

McCullough is entitled to $80,000 – $20,000 for each year he spent in state prison after his Sept. 14, 2012, conviction – through the court of claims. The state, however, is behind on paying those claims, because of the nearly 2-year-old budget impasse.

“They’re not being paid,” Ainsworth said. He, too, is part of the Exoneration Project, a free legal clinic at the University of Chicago that represents the wrongfully convicted. “There are a number of wrongfully convicted people who are not being paid because of the budget impasse.”

McCullough’s conviction was upheld by an Illinois appellate court in 2015. Former DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack used FBI reports from the 1950s compiled after Ridulph’s disappearance in Sycamore and evidence that McCullough used a pay phone in Rockford about the time Ridulph last was seen to have the charges dismissed on April 15, 2016.

“To be clear, once my predecessor agreed to the certificate of innocence, the options of this office were limited,” Amato said. “I consulted a number of legal experts. All universally said that I could not choose my own path, exercise my own discretion, or make any move that is inconsistent with that of my predecessor.”

Jeff Doty, author of “Piggyback,” a book about Ridulph’s kidnapping and McCullough’s conviction, said he spoke with McCullough on Tuesday night, and that the “whirlwind of emotions” surrounding McCullough’s April 6 hearing led him to return to Seattle shortly after.

“He wants to come back, but he wants to come back under different circumstances, to visit the town he grew up in,” Doty said. “He’s hoping this will fade away, though we know it won’t.”

At the hearing April 6, Amato conceded that four of the five requirements by state statute for the certificate were met. He objected, however, to the fifth: The petitioner must prove he or she did not, by his or her own conduct, voluntarily cause or bring about the conviction. 

Ainsworth called three witnesses during the hearing to reinforce McCullough’s innocence, including McCullough and Nancy Steblay, professor of psychology at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.

Steblay said Kathy Sigman, a friend of Ridulph’s who had been playing with her up to her disappearance, picked McCullough out of a lineup of six mugshots in 2010. Every mugshot, however, except McCullough’s, was from a high school yearbook that had a different background.

Steblay’s testimony was buoyed by precedent set in the January 2016 People v. Lerma case, in which expert testimony on reliability of eyewitness’ testimony was allowed.

“Expert testimony concerning the reliability of eyewitness testimony has moved from the novel and uncertain to the settled and widely accepted,” Brady said Wednesday.

He also said that McCullough’s statements to Seattle police were not a basis of his conviction and, thus, he hadn’t caused it himself.

“It was relief,” Doty said. “It’s time that it’s over. This concludes the criminal part of it, and I guess it goes to civil from here on out. I don’t know for sure what he’s going to do.

“His whole concern, his whole focus, is for people to know this could happen to you.”

Davis said that once McCullough and his lawyers determine the next step, they’ll make a public statement.

“I think he’s just exploring his options, and we’ll be talking to him about whatever he wants to do next,” she said. “I’m sure you all will hear as soon as he makes a decision.”

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