Updated: January 12, 2013 6:12AM
A young man kidnaps and kills a little girl, and for this he is sentenced to life in prison.
It is only just.
Our sole regret is that young man’s punishment comes 55 years late.
The killer, Jack Daniel McCullough, was 18 when he killed the girl, 7-year-old Maria Ridulph, in 1957. That he was able to live free for all the years since then — not arrested, charged and convicted until just last year — compounds the tragedy of Maria’s death.
By sentencing McCullough to the maximum of life behind bars, Judge James Hallock sent a message Monday that there is, indeed, no statute of limitations on the prosecution of murder. No killer should ever get too comfortable. He should always know that this is not over.
We’ll admit to a degree of unease in this case. Because McCullough was brought to trial a full half century after Maria’s murder in Sycamore, witnesses who might have testified had died, and evidence that might have been presented was no longer admissible. Prosecutors were forced to rely on hearsay testimony, jailhouse snitches and Maria’s childhood friend’s identification of a 1950s photo of McCullough as the man whom she last saw with Maria.
As McCullough’s defense lawyer complained, “The guys I wanted to question were all dead.”
It helps, then, that this was a bench trial, where a judge trained in the criminal law and rules of evidence concluded McCullough was guilty, rather than a jury trial, where emotions might have played a larger role in reaching a verdict.
It’s also imperative, then, that all critical issues — beginning with the loss of witnesses and erosion of evidence — be fully aired in the appeals process.
But we’ll never buy the argument that the passage of time, in and of itself, is reason enough not to take a case to trial and hold a killer accountable.
After all these years, little Maria Ridulph is no less dead.