What an Honest Prosecutor Looks Like

Although many prosecutors go to great lengths to cover up evidence that suggests a wrongful conviction has been obtained, some make an effort to do the right thing.

In 2012, military veteran and former police officer Jack McCullough was convicted of kidnapping and killing Maria Ridulph, a 7-year old girl in the sleepy little town of Sycamore, Illinois. The conviction was seen as a major triumph because the murder occurred in 1957 and the case had gone cold for over five decades. Calling the case “high profile” is an understatement; not only did it inspire a book and documentary, it had received attention from President Eisenhower and F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover.

That’s why it’s surprising that Richard Schmack, the state’s attorney for Dekalb County, IL., issued a statement saying that evidence not presented at trial convinced him that Mr. McCullough is innocent. It’s not often that prosecutors play defense attorney for the defendant that they helped put away, especially in a case that likely propelled Mr. Schmack to the position of state’s attorney in the first place (he was promoted after the conviction). So it’s definitely worth taking a second look at the case and Mr. McCullough’s involvement or lack thereof.

According to the prosecutor, Mr. McCullough could not have been the perpetrator because he placed a phone call to his parents from a post-office pay phone located in Rockford at 6:57 pm on the night that Maria was abducted. This is significant because other evidence indicates that Maria was kidnapped around 6:30 pm at the earliest in a location that was about 40 miles away. Therefore, in order for the timeline to work, Mr. McCullough would have had to snatch Maria and then drive to the pay phone in under 30 minutes to place the call. That means he would have had to drive over 88 miles per hour on average to make it in time, which would have been highly unlikely especially considering that there was a snowstorm that same night. I’m not sure how fast automobiles were back in ‘50s, but recall that the vehicle used for time travel in the popular ‘Back to The Future’ films – the DeLorean – had a top speed of 88 mph.

Seeing a prosecutor engaging in true fact-finding, as opposed to conviction engineering, is very encouraging. It shows that some who work in the justice system do care about getting it right. But some are not convinced. Charles Ridulph, the victim’s brother, still clings to the belief that Mr. McCullough is guilty. He says that the prosecutor’s timeline is erroneous, and that the timeline created by the state police, which has Maria’s abduction occurring at 6:15 pm, is more accurate. But even if 6:15 is closer to the time of abduction, the timeline is still extremely tight.

Mr. Ridulph’s reluctance to suddenly believe that the man previously thought to have been his sister’s killer is now innocent is entirely understandable. It also shows you how important it is to get things right the first time, and how hard it is to convince the victim’s family that a convicted defendant is actually innocent. If the prosecutor who oversaw the defendant’s conviction can’t do it — no one can.

“He’s thrown out all of the evidence that’s been presented in court.” Mr. Ridulph said of the prosecutor.

“All the evidence I found pointed toward him being innocent,” Mr. Schmack said of Mr. McCullough

Mr. Ridulph may feel that the prosecutor has reneged on his commitment to speak for the victim, but by searching for the truth and trying to right a wrongful conviction, Richard Schmack has proven that he never stopped thinking about Maria — not for a second. And though Mr. Ridulph might never get closure in the murder of his sister, I applaud the efforts of Mr. Schmack in seeking unconditional justice for the innocent.


Read the New York Times story


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