Five years after his arrest and conviction in an over 50 year old murder case, Jack McCullough walked out of the DeKalb County courthouse a free man Friday, the tiny community of Sycamore left wondering about the resolution of one of its most troubling mysteries.
Arrested in 2011, McCullough had been convicted of the 1957 kidnapping and murder of 7 year old Maria Ridulph. But last month, the Dekalb County State's Attorney said the case should be reopened, after he said new evidence conclusively proved that Ridulph could not have committed the crime.
Prosecutor Richard Schmack said newly discovered phone records confirmed McCullough's alibi, that he had been miles away at a military recruiting office in Rockford when the crime occurred.
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"The prosecutor in this county has made very clear that he believes Mr. McCullough is actually innocent," said defense attorney Gabriel Fuentes, "and that the facts demonstrate that."
The case was not a slam dunk. The Ridulph family firmly believes in McCullough's guilt. Brother Charles Ridulph has asked that a special prosecutor be appointed, and requested to be heard at Friday's hearing.
That request was turned down.
"Everybody does not get to have their say," said Judge William Brady. "There are probably plenty of people here who say, I would like to say something too. We're not going to go there."
For over two laborious hours, Brady listened to finely tuned nuances, arguing that there was only so much he could do in the face of not only a trial decision, but also the ruling of an appellate court.
But in the end, the judge agreed that the new evidence, coupled with a questionable eyewitness identification, and a dubious jailhouse snitch, were overwhelming. And he agreed to set McCullough free.
"I understand people are emotionally invested in Jack being guilty," said McCullough's step-daughter, Janey O'Connor. "Sadly these people were lied to."
Technically, McCullough was only granted a new trial. A decision on his future now rests with Schmack, the Dekalb County State's Attorney. But Schmack is the very person who argued that McCullough was in fact innocent, so a retrial at his hands is unlikely.
The judge agreed to hear a Ridulph family request for a special prosecutor in the case. A hearing on that motion is set for next Friday.
A few blocks from the courthouse, a monument recalling the Maria's tragic case stands in front of the Sycamore police station. On Friday, someone left a bouquet of yellow tulips, in the child's memory.