I crafted a post Wednesday (December 12, 2012) on a story on which I had only the sketchiest of details. Just going from the Associated Press wire reports of the conviction and sentencing (that day) of Jack McCullough for the 1957 kidnapping and murder of Maria Ridulph, I surmised that there were so many things wrong with the case that it stood as a perfect example for why the death penalty should be abolished, though Mr. McCullough did not himself face the potential for such a sentence.

I based my conclusion on a number of factors: the court allowing eyewitness testimony of an event that took place 55 years ago when neuroscience has shown again and again that eyewitnesses only occasionally get things right a few moments after the fact; the court allowing testimony as to the death-bed utterances of McCullough’s mother that was neither self-incriminating nor inherently pertinent to McCullough’s guilt or innocence; the relative uselessness of close-relative testimony, particularly that of a step-sibling, where the relationships are almost always acrimonious, and finally, the improbability of a man who had otherwise never been accused of a crime, either before 1957 or in the fifty-five intervening years, of committing just one such heinous act.

Through correspondence with Mr. McCullough’s step-daughter and others, I have discovered that my instincts were spot on, except that McCullough’s case has even more problems than I first thought.

McCullough was tried in the town, Sycamore, Illinois, where the crime took place, after having spent most of his adult life elsewhere. This should never have happened. By the time the trial took place, McCullough was an outsider upon whom the town could desperately pin this crime without suffering any measure of consternation and reflection that might accrue when the accused is a member of the community. Mr. McCullough’s request for a change in venue should have been readily granted.

McCullough was tried by a judge, without a jury. Given the relative tenor of the community, it was not surprising that McCullough decided for a bench trial. But the judge still should not have allowed it. At minimum, he should have sequestered a jury and had them render an advisory verdict. When McCullough changed his mind about waiving his right to a jury trial, the judge denied him. That alone should be enough to throw out the verdict.

The eyewitness testimony of Kathy Chapman, identifying through a photo lineup, Jack McCullough as the man she and her playmate, the victim Maria Ridulph, had seen just before Ridulph’s abduction should never have been allowed. There is absolutely no way anyone can reliably remember a person’s face having seen it only once, late in the evening, in an unremarkable setting, at the age of seven, some fifty-five years after the fact. Absolutely no way. Most people wouldn’t be able to remember the face the next day, and the fact is, Chapman identified a different man in a lineup during the initial investigation, but that evidence was also excluded. Admitting eyewitness identification some fifty-five years after the fact on the basis of old photographs in a contrived lineup should be enough to throw out the verdict.

The fact that the court excluded all the extant evidence accumulated during the initial investigation should also be reason enough for the case to be overturned. If the point of the trial was figuring out the truth, rather than railroading a man to jail to burnish a prosecutor or judge’s career , or to satisfy a community’s bloodlust for convicting someone, then every bit of evidence from the initial investigation should have been admitted. Using the excuse that all the people personally involved in accumulating the evidence were now dead and unable to testify is a bit disingenuous when the testimony of a woman dead since 1994 was allowed on quite dubious application of the hearsay exception for deathbed confessions.  Incidentally, if the testimony on what the mother said on her death-bed included her son’s confession of the crime, that would be hearsay to the second derivative, testimony about what someone said about what was told to that person.  It obviously should not have been allowed.

The step-sister, Janet Tessier, should not have been allowed to testify. For whatever reason, she obviously was harboring severe resentments against Mr. McCullough, having accused him of rape after cajoling the local authorities to arrest and charge him with the murder of the little girl. When the rape charge was dismissed for its physical impossibility, every utterance that issued from her mouth should have been heavily discounted, yet her testimony as to the death-bed “confessions” of her mother played what had to be a significant role in McCullough’s conviction, and an even more significant role in his indictment. Throw out her testimony, and there is really no evidence that Mr. McCullough did anything.

And of course, the testimony of McCullough’s fellow inmates while he awaited trial should be tossed as well. Why courts ever allow the admission of so-called “jailhouse confessions” is beyond me.  People already in jail have an obvious conflict of interest when testifying against their cell mates.  Even if they weren’t explicitly promised some reward, they still would gain favor with the police and prison authorities. 

Throw out all the questionable testimony, and you have nothing. Mr. McCullough should not even have been arrested, never mind convicted. No new evidence has appeared, except what was purportedly told to a woman who obviously has a vendetta against McCullough by a heavily sedated and delusional woman on her death-bed. The court should not have allowed this case to proceed past arraignment.

It sent a chill down my spine when I asked one of the folks with whom I was corresponding about the rape case. He said McCullough’s step-sister had it in for him, that in fact, all three of his step-sisters hated him, but it was Janet Tessier who accused him of rape, yet she was only a year old when he left home. I have three step-sisters, two of whom seem to harbor the same sorts of resentments that McCullough’s sisters have for him, and for what, I haven’t a clue. I think it has generally to do with the sibling tension that is always present, but is magnified when the siblings don’t have in common but one set of genes. I wouldn’t put something like this past either one of my step-sisters alone, or the two conspiring together. And there would be nothing I could do. They could accuse me of practically anything–perhaps rape or abuse after having dredged up some lost memories as McCullough’s step-sister supposedly did–and though none of it would be true, it would simply be a case of he said/she said, and in today’s political environment, the one defending an accusation of rape or abuse is practically, if not technically, guilty until he can prove his innocence. And how could anyone prove innocence decades after the fact?  McCullough succeeded apparently because Tessier’s story was physically impossible.

It seems the rape accusation in McCullough’s case, though false, worked as intended, poisoning the well of public opinion against Mr. McCullough so severely that he felt at first he’d have a better chance waiving his right to a jury trial.

It seems that the people of Sycamore, Illinois, wishing desperately to experience the psychological satisfaction of closure, of putting this horrible crime to rest once and for all, allowed their common sense of decency and justice to be bashed to pieces on the rocks of capriciousness and irrationality, lured by the siren song of Mr. McCullough’s stepsister’s retrieved memories. A black man in Alabama fifty years ago would have had a better chance of acquittal than did McCullough. Which is why the case stands as stark evidence that the death penalty should be abolished anywhere and everywhere, but is little solace to Mr. McCullough, who has been condemned to waste away and die in prison.

God help him.  Perhaps more reasonable minds will prevail at the appellate level of the state of Illinois’ justice system.