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73-year-old faces sentencing Monday for murdering girl in 1957

Jack Daniel McCullough

Jack Daniel McCullough

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Updated: January 11, 2013 6:08AM

His sentencing Monday for the 1957 murder of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph will send a powerful message that no killing is ever too old to solve.

That’s what relatives of the slain Sycamore girl think will come from the decades-delayed prosecution of Jack McCullough, 73.

“It’s going to give hope to people who are looking for conclusions in old cases,” said Charles Ridulph, Maria’s older brother. “I think people will stop and look at old cases in a new light.”

McCullough wasn’t charged until 2011 with the kidnapping and killing of the Sycamore girl in 1957 as she played near her home in the small DeKalb County farm town.

The former Sycamore resident and onetime cop was found guilty in September in a trial that was one of the oldest murder prosecutions in the United States, authorities have said.

On Monday, under 1957 sentencing laws, McCullough will face a minimum 14-year prison term and could receive a life sentence. He would be eligible for parole in less than 11 years.

McCullough’s attorney and several relatives take a radically different view of the time that passed, contending the long gap between the girl’s death and his arrest is the only reason he was charged or convicted.

McCullough’s attorney is highlighting that issue in asking Judge James Hallock to throw out the murder conviction.

Though that legal longshot is likely to fail — Hallock heard the case without a jury and delivered the verdict — the timing of the charges is likely to be the critical issue when McCullough appeals his conviction and whatever sentence he receives.

Most witnesses had long since died by the time McCullough was charged.

So prosecutors relied largely on hearsay evidence, testimony from jailhouse snitches and Maria’s childhood friend’s identification of a 1950s photo of McCullough as the man with whom she last saw Maria.

The lack of living witnesses, including FBI agents who investigated Maria’s disappearance on Dec. 3, 1957, severely hampered McCullough’s defense, his attorney and a family member say.

Without those witnesses, crucial police reports and other information from the original investigation into Maria’s disappearance and death were barred from McCullough’s trial.

“If he was brought to trial 20 years ago, when some of those people were alive, it would never have gone this far,” said his stepdaughter, Janey O’Connor.

Though there is no statute of limitations on murder, McCullough’s attorney contended the half-century gap between Ridulph’s death and his arrest violated his constitutional rights to a fair trial.

“Clearly, the passage of 55 years substantially prejudiced the defendant in his ability to prepare and present a defense,” DeKalb County Acting Public Defender Thomas McCulloch wrote in his request to have the conviction thrown out.

A key example was the identification made by Maria’s childhood friend, Kathy Sigman Chapman, of a 1950s photo of Jack McCullough.

Chapman testified that picture showed the young man she last saw with Maria on the night the girl vanished.

But only days after Maria disappeared, Chapman — then 8 years old — identified another man in a lineup as the person she had seen with Maria, attorney McCulloch said, citing FBI reports.

He couldn’t use that information during the trial because none of the agents involved were still alive.

“That was one of the problems. The guys I wanted to question were all dead,” McCulloch said.

State’s Attorney Richard Schmack, who was elected after McCullough’s trial, couldn’t be reached for comment on the sentencing.

But legal experts said focusing an appeal on the lengthy time lapse makes sense.

“It’s clear it hurt them,” said attorney Brian Telander, a former prosecutor and judge now in private practice.

“It’s a novel, plausible legal argument,” added DePaul University law professor Leonard Cavise, who nonetheless said there is little legal precedent to support that approach.

Before he is sentenced Monday, McCullough will tell Hallock that he didn’t kill Maria.

He won’t ask for any specific sentence.

“What’s the appropriate sentence for an innocent man?” attorney McCulloch asked.

O’Connor is pinning her hopes on her stepfather ultimately winning his appeal and his freedom, but she worries about how long that process could take.

“I’m really hopeful,” O’Connor said. “But at his age, how long will he have to wait?”

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