A former Washington state police officer, Jack  McCullough, 73, was sentenced today (December 12, 2012) to life in prison for having kidnapped and murdered a seven year old girl, Maria Ridulph, in 1957.  The death penalty was thankfully not an option.

Just from reading the wire reports, it is clear there are profound problems with the case.  

Mr. McCullough’s half-sister, Janet Tessier, shown in news photos with an arm around the victim’s friend, Kathy Chapman, testified that their (her and Jack’s) mother “confessed” to having lied to support her son’s alibi (he was supposed to be on his way to Chicago for an Air Force entrance physical).  The mother wasn’t there to testify, as she was dead, but Mr. McCullough’s half-sister was allowed to testify as to the mother’s death-bed “admission” that she had lied to protect her son.  But this is not a death-bed admission of guilt, which is generally admissible as evidence, against general prohibitions on admitting hearsay testimony, on the probity assumed of death-bed admissions.  Jack McCullough’s mother was not accused of a crime.  And what mother wouldn’t instinctively lie to protect her child, whether she knew he was innocent or guilty?  She could have as easily been lying to protect him from suspicion as to protect him from the consequences of his actions, which surely, unless he had confessed the crime to her, she wouldn’t have known about.  And she didn’t claim her son had confessed the crime to her.  Only that she had lied to support his alibi.  And whether or not she lied about Mr. McCullough’s alibi does not prove that Mr. McCullough committed the crime. 

But what had to be the most important piece of incriminating evidence was the “eyewitness” testimony of the last person to see Ms. Ridulph alive (except the killer).  Shown a picture of Mr. McCullough, Kathy Chapman identified him as the man (boy of seventeen at the time) who had stopped to play with them the day Ridulph was abducted and killed.   We are to believe, and apparently the jurors bought it, that Ms. Chapman can identify someone from a photograph over fifty years after the fact?   This is utter nonsense.  Eyewitnesses often don’t get things right ten minutes after the fact.  

Neuroscience is accumulating mountains of evidence on how effectively our brains deceive us.  We can be made to see, or admit, pretty much anything, if doing so is perceived to be to our advantage by the neural processes subconsciously deciding upon such things (for an excellent primer on the subject, see David Eagleman’s Incognito, reviewed here).  In my estimation, eyewitness testimony has proved to be so often corrupted, either intentionally or not, that it should be inadmissible, or should never be the sole basis for a conviction, and the jury should be told to discount its probative value tremendously if it is allowed, pulling out neuroscientific studies if necessary to make the point. 

It was quite troublesome, the photograph which appeared with the article on McCullough’s sentencing in my newspaper (but that I can’t find on their convoluted web page–it is generally the case, the New York Times being the exception, that print newspapers are horrible web newspapers; my hometown fishwrap, published only three days a week now, is a perfect example–go see for yourself at al.com).   In the photograph, Mr. McCullough’s half-sister, Janet Tessier, is shown with a beaming smile and her arm around Ridulph’s childhood friend, Kathy Chapman, whose smile is equally beaming.  Just from looking at the photograph, it appears that Mr. McCullough might be the victim of a conspiracy between the two woman to pin the murder on him.   Anyone who has half-siblings (I have three) readily understands that the relationships are at best complicated, at worst, quite antagonistic.  When I saw that McCullough’s half-sister had testified against him, I was immediately suspicious, as well should have been the jurors.  In general, just like eyewitness testimony, the testimony of close family members, either incriminating or exculpatory, should be heavily discounted.  Even when the family member may believe they are telling the truth, it is often the case that their perception of truth is heavily impacted by their innate biases resulting from the relationship.

The last problem with the case is that, at least according to reports I’ve read, McCullough apparently never had done anything like this before, and never did anything like it again.  But people who kill defenseless little girls while they are still a child themselves are usually possessed of severe mental deficiencies and defects.  Yet there was no evidence that McCullough had any mental disease or defect.  He seemed to live a perfectly normal life after having committed this horrific crime.  It just doesn’t add up.

The only saving grace is that McCullough won’t be executed because of this bogus conviction.  Imagine how many people have been convicted on flimsier evidence, who later died by the hangman’s noose or in the executioner’s chair.   The death penalty should be banned because the state prosecutorial machinery is inherently flawed, the result of political biases through which the system is riven, and the degree to which evidence can be manipulated to prosecutorial benefit.  Prosecutors know that the public wants to fix blame when someone is murdered.  The incentive to give them what they want, whether the actual murderer is identified or not, is just too great for justice to reliably be done.

I don’t know whether Mr. McCullough killed that little girl.  What I do know is that the mechanism through he was convicted and sentenced was profoundly flawed, and should never be used to determine whether a man lives or dies.