Judge to rule next week on certificate of innocence for Jack McCullough

SYCAMORE – Jack McCullough, whose conviction in the 1957 kidnapping and slaying of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph was vacated last year, testified during a hearing Thursday that he was seeking a certificate of innocence to get his good name back.

“I am innocent, proven innocent,” McCullough said. “My name has been in all the papers coast to coast. I have been put forward as a monster and people still think I’m a monster.”

Pending a ruling Wednesday by DeKalb County Judge William Brady, who previously has ruled to vacate McCullough’s conviction, the 77-year-old McCullough might be granted the certificate, which deems that a wrongfully convicted person was innocent of all crimes for which he or she was incarcerated.

McCullough had been convicted in 2012 after an investigation by the Illinois State Police and was sentenced to life in prison. An Illinois appellate court upheld the decision in 2015.

However, using FBI reports compiled after Ridulph’s disappearance in Sycamore and evidence that McCullough used a pay phone in Rockford about the time Ridulph last was seen, former DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack found that McCullough had an alibi, and the charges were dismissed. However, there still is the possibility McCullough could be charged with the crime again.

Under Illinois statute, a certificate of innocence can be granted if the petitioner can prove he or she did not, by his or her own conduct, voluntarily cause or bring about his or her conviction.

DeKalb County State’s Attorney Rick Amato disagreed that this could be proved, but for the purposes of the hearing, he acknowledged that all other conditions of the certificate of innocence were met.

Russell Ainsworth of the Chicago-based civil rights law firm Loevy & Loevy and part of the Exoneration Project, a free legal clinic at the University of Chicago that represents the wrongfully convicted, called three witnesses during the hearing to reinforce McCullough’s innocence, including McCullough himself.

Ainsworth’s first witness was Jan Swafford, a former girlfriend of McCullough who was with him the night Ridulph disappeared. She testified on video that there was nothing unusual about McCullough’s behavior when she saw him.

Ainsworth then called Nancy Steblay, professor of psychology at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, who questioned the reliability of eyewitness memory, which helped convict McCullough in 2012.

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 mug shots in 2010. However, every mug shot except McCullough’s was from a high school yearbook that had a different background.

Although Steblay did not say whether she thought McCullough was innocent, she said she was not confident in the reliability of Sigman’s selection, especially since it was 52 years after Ridulph’s abduction and she had incorrectly identified a suspect during the initial investigation in 1957.

“We don’t want witnesses to slide into another way of coming to a decision,” Steblay said. “Instead of absolutely recognizing someone, what they begin to do is start comparing pictures and seeing which ones are the closest or a process of elimination. That is what we found in the laboratory to be a very dangerous process, because it really means the witness can’t recognize anyone.”

McCullough said he was satisfied with how the hearing went, and he thinks that granting the certificate of innocence is the only decision that could possibly be made.

“I just feel that it’s gone full circle, and I’m happy it’s over,” McCullough said.

He added that he felt what was done to him was criminal, and similar corruption needs to end.

“The people who did this to me deserve to go to prison,” McCullough said. “They knew that I was innocent. They had the FBI documents, and the documents proved I couldn’t have done this. I want justice.”

Pat Quinn, Maria’s sister, was in attendance for the hearing, along with her husband, Bill, and family friend, Nancy Miller.

“He’s very likely to get the certificate of innocence, and it’s just a sad thing,” Quinn said.

With a certificate of innocence, McCullough could be eligible for compensation from the state of Illinois for false imprisonment.

Since he served less than five years, McCullough could be awarded up to $85,350 for his wrongful conviction, according to Illinois state law.

Brady’s ruling will be at 1 p.m. Wednesday at the DeKalb County Courthouse, 133 W. State St. in Sycamore.

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