The justice system is not infallible. Unfortunately, it is not unheard of for innocent men and women to be convicted of crimes they didn’t commit. And although instances like this can cast doubt upon the American justice system, it is also true that modern technology and science have made it possible to correct injustices that have long been forgotten.
Four years ago, 72-year-old Jack McCullough was tried and convicted of murder thanks to this very fact. And today, according to Fox News, 76-year-old Jack McCullough is a free man for the very same reason.
— CNN (@CNN) April 17, 2016
In 1957, a little girl named Maria Ridulph was abducted from her home in Sycamore, Illinois. The 7-year-old girl was playing in the snow outside her home, which was just over 60 miles west of Chicago. Her body was discovered by hikers approximately five months later.
Allegedly, Maria and a friend were playing outside on December 3, 1957, when approached by a man who identified himself as “Johnny.” Maria’s friend went to her home to get a pair of mittens, and upon her return, both Johnny and Maria had vanished. At the time, Mr. McCullough, who was then just 18-years-old, went by the name of John Tessier.
John, aka Jack, was one out of approximately 100 people who police suspected of the crime. However, he was not arrested because he had a solid alibi. On the day of Maria’s disappearance, he was in Rockford – 40 miles away – attempting to enlist with the Air Force. Maria’s abduction remained unsolved for decades.
Mr. McCullough spent much of his adult life in Washington state and even maintained a career as a police officer. Fifty years later, authorities in the area again came after Mr. McCullough because his half-sister, Janet Tessier, told authorities that his mother had made incriminating comments pertaining to her son shortly before her death in the mid-90s.
Maria’s childhood friend, who had been with her that day, then identified Mr. McCullough as Johnny from an old photograph. In 2012, a judge convicted him of Maria’s abduction and murder. Maria’s was one of the oldest unsolved cases in the United States ever to go to trial. McCullough was sentenced to life in prison.
Richard Schmack, a DeKalb County State’s Attorney, conducted a review of the evidence six months after the conviction. He concluded that Mr. McCullough could not have killed Maria and cited new evidence to support his case. Schmack was able to recover phone records proving Mr. McCullough’s alibi. He had made a collect call to his parents from a phone booth in Rockford at 6:57 p.m. Maria disappeared between 6:45 p.m. and 6:55 p.m.
Not only that, but Mr. Schmack took the time to review police reports and what has been described as hundreds of other documents to support his claim. Among those documents were forms from the United States Air Force recruitment office. Schmack asserts that those forms were improperly barred at trial and contain “a wealth of information pointing to McCullough’s innocence, and absolutely nothing showing guilt.”
— Ann O’Neill (@AnnoCNN) April 15, 2016
But what about the photo identification? Maria’s childhood friend was shown a collection of six photographs five decades after the crime took place. Mr. Schmack believes Mr. McCullough’s photograph was unique and stood out only because he was the only one whose likeness was not portrayed in a professional yearbook photo, and he was the only one who was not wearing a suit coat in his photograph.
Although Mr. McCullough’s conviction seemed to bring some closure to Maria’s family and the citizens of the area, a wrongful conviction could also be considered criminal activity. After reviewing the new evidence presented to the court by Mr. Schmack, a judge released Mr. McCullough on his own recognizance, asking that he stay in the state pending a new trial.
Maria’s family remains convinced that Jack McCullough is her killer. However, at least at this juncture, it seems the evidence proves otherwise. Maria’s brother expressed the family’s discouragement over the prosecution’s sudden abandonment of the case.
Mr. McCullough was visibly emotional after the judge’s decision as family members seated behind him exchanged hugs and cried. Within moments, Mr. McCullough looked back and smiled. Within a few hours, Mr. McCullough’s stepdaughter drove them away from the nearby jail as he smiled broadly in the back seat. You can watch these events as they transpired in the video below.
[Photos by Chicago Tribune/Getty Images]