SYCAMORE, Ill. (FOX 32 / AP) - A former security guard serving a life sentence in the 1957 slaying of a 7-year-old Illinois girl made an emotional statement declaring his innocence and pleaded with a judge Tuesday to consider his bid for freedom as soon as possible, citing a prosecutor's scathing review of the investigation that landed him in prison.
With his legs and wrists shackled, Jack McCullough spoke up from a defense table when it became clear that the judge - while agreeing to start a process that could lead to a vacated conviction and a new trial - was going to adjourn the 20-minute hearing without setting the 76-year-old free.
"Your honor, I've been in prison locked up now for almost five years. I'm innocent, and I can prove I'm innocent," McCullough said in a weak voice from behind a defense table, clearly disappointed. "There has to be an end to this somewhere."
McCullough's stepdaughter said she knew from his recent letters and from his demeanor in court that he believed the judge might order him to be released immediately.
"I think Jack really believed he was going home and that was the only part of this process that was heart aching, hard for me to see," Janey O'Connor told FOX 32 after the hearing. "Without a doubt, I believe once everyone understands what the facts of this case are, there's no room for wondering if he did it or didn't do it. It is actually impossible."
McCullough was arrested in Washington state in 2011 and convicted in 2012 in Illinois for the slaying of Maria Ridulph, his neighbor in the community of Sycamore. She was abducted while playing in the snow in the evening of Dec. 3, 1957. Prosecutors said McCullough choked and stabbed her to death, then dumped her body in a forest. It was one of the oldest cases in the U.S. ever to go to trial.
Judge William Brady told McCullough his claims that his constitutional rights had been violated were credible enough to kick-start the procedure, but a decisive ruling would require several more hearings.
"There's a process," he told McCullough. "It's not black and white."
McCullough represented himself at Tuesday's hearing, though Brady agreed to appoint him an attorney as he pursues his release. Brady scheduled a status hearing for April 15.
Ridulph's brother and sister, who thought the case was closed with McCullough's 2012 conviction, were among those in the crowded courtroom as McCullough proclaimed his innocence.
The hearing came after DeKalb County State's Attorney Richard Schmack made a filing last week that portrayed the investigation and prosecution of McCullough as deeply flawed. New evidence plus a re-examination of hundreds of old case files, he said, convinced him McCullough couldn't possibly have killed Ridulph.
Schmack focused on newly discovered phone records showing McCullough made a collect call to his parents at 6:57 p.m. Dec. 3, 1957, from a phone booth in downtown Rockford around the time Ridulph was abducted 35 miles away in Sycamore - between 6:45 p.m. and 6:55 p.m. Schmack concluded it was impossible for McCullough to have committed the murder.
After the hearing, Ridulph's brother, Charles Ridulph, said he's unconvinced by the findings of Schmack, who was not a prosecutor on the case and was elected state's attorney as the 2012 trial concluded.
"Why in the world would we think that Jack McCullough did not ask one of his friends to make that phone call for him as an alibi for his defense," Ridulph said.
Ridulph had filed a motion Monday asking the judge to appoint a special prosecutor, which Brady said could be addressed at a later hearing.
"Permitting an appointment of the special prosecutor simply because a victim, or a defendant or a witness disagrees with the decision of the states attorney would undermine the entire system," said Schmack.
The 70-year-old Ridulph, who still lives in Sycamore, says his family feels let down by the about-face of the state prosecutor's office.
"(We) feel totally betrayed ... abandoned by the world and its system," he said. "I have no sympathy for Jack being in prison because I believe with all my heart that he's guilty."
Mary Hunt, Jack McCullough's half-sister, said she also remained convinced he murdered Maria Ridulph and found Schmack's conclusions unpersuasive.
"This man says every single other investigator who found McCullough did this screwed up?" she said.
O'Connor, who drove from Seattle, Washington, to support her stepfather, said faulty childhood memories and a desire to solve the case that haunted the town led to a wrongful conviction.
"If you don't have power and money, you get ground in the wheels (of justice)," she said.
Besides new phone records, Schmack reviewed police reports and other old documents that he says were improperly barred from evidence during McCullough's trial. Some were only recently uncovered, he said.
Some of those documents discredited testimony suggesting the abduction had taken place earlier, Schmack determined, meaning there was no possibility McCullough could have committed the crime and then driven to Rockford in time to place the phone call.
"Thousands of pages of improperly excluded police reports more than 20 years old contain a wealth of information pointing to McCullough's innocence, and absolutely nothing showing guilt," wrote Schmack.