Defending Against Ghosts

As 73-year-old Jack McCullough has now  been sentenced to spend the rest of his “natural life” in prison for the murder of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph, one question has never been answered.  What changed between 1957, when the crime occurred, and 2011 when he was arrested for it?  No DNA connected him to the crime. No witness came out of hiding who was previously unknown. But one thing was different.

Had McCullough’s case been tried 55 years ago, the court would have required that the evidence against him comport with the evidentiary rules requiring reliability and confrontation.  Instead, he was tried by the testimony of ghosts. From Fox News :

“He is as evil as prosecutors painted — and some,” said Janet Tessier, McCullough’s half-sister, after he was convicted in September. Her decision to tell police about incriminating comments McCullough’s and Tessier’s mother made just before she died in 1994 played a crucial role in McCullough’s 2011 arrest and subsequent conviction.

The claim is about hearsay from 1994.  At the time of the murder, McCullough was considered, and rejected, as a suspect:

McCullough was one of more than 100 people who were briefly suspects, but he had what seemed like a solid alibi. On the day of the girl vanished, he told investigators, he’d been traveling to Chicago for a medical exam before joining the Air Force.

McCullough ultimately settled in Seattle and was a Washington state police officer.

No cop jokes here, regardless of whether they are well deserved. It’s irrelevant to what came afterward.

Once a new investigation was launched, authorities went to Chapman and showed her an old photograph of McCullough. She told them the picture showed the teenager who came up to her and Maria that snowy day and identified himself as “Johnny.”

That’s Kathy Chapman, who was playing with 7-year-old Maria Ridulph on her last day of life. She’s now 63-years-old.  If identifications are suspect immediately after a crime has occurred, they don’t improve with age.

This isn’t to say that McCullough is innocent, but that the course of his prosecution made it impossible to defend against the charges.  He wasn’t confronted by the witnesses against him, but by stories told by witnesses that came from the now-dead witnesses against him.

A funny thing happens 55 years later. All the rules that limit evidence to the stuff that’s reasonably reliable evaporate. As the quality of the prosecution’s evidence diminishes, the rigor of the rules diminish as well.  When a witness testifies as to hearsay, it’s impossible to challenge the underlying statement, either for accuracy or veracity.  The witness just shrugs and says, “I don’t know, that’s what I was told.”  There is no comeback to that, other than the witness is a liar.

When the case involves murder, witnesses say they will never forget what happened.  That resonates with a jury, as we all want to believe that tragedies aren’t forgotten.  But they are.  Worst still, they aren’t, and in the place of real memories are the imaginings that grow over decades of thinking about such terrible events. Memories once real become enhanced with words we imagine were said, thoughts we imagine we had, but never really happened.  The mind isn’t nearly as fine as we want to believe it is, and memories play awful tricks over time.

There is no statute of limitations on the crime of murder.  It’s not because the compelling arguments in favor of a statute of limitations don’t apply with the same force as any other crime, but because it is considered such a terrible crime that the law has chosen to push the problems aside and let the wheel spin.  But how is a defendant to  prove his alibi 55 years later?

A deathbed accusation by McCullough’s mother in 1994 – passed on to police by his half-sister in 2008 – led to a chain of events that brought about his conviction.

His mother, Eileen Tessier, had lied to police canvassing the neighborhood in 1957 about her son’s whereabouts, buttressing his alibi, prosecutor Julie Trevartchen said Friday.

“She knew what she did and she didn’t want to die with that on her conscience,” she said.

McCullough’s girlfriend in the 1950s also contacted police with evidence that called his alibi into question. She had found his unused train ticket from Rockford to Chicago for the day Maria disappeared.

This all came via his half-sister, who learned of it in 1994 but sat on her mother’s lie for 17 years?  In 1957, there would have been evidence that he was given his Air Force physical in Chicago on the day after the murder, supporting if not proving his alibi.  Try to get that evidence now.

Had the prosecution in 1957 sought to introduce testimony by the defendant’s half-sister as to his mother’s  accusation that he committed the murder, it would have been summarily refused. You can’t put in such blatant hearsay.  But with the mother dead, that’s all they have. Somehow, hearsay evidence that is woefully unacceptable is magically turned into perfectly competent evidence by necessity.  And for the very reasons no judge would permit such unreliable testimony into evidence way back when, it is immune from challenge today while being every bit as unreliable.

While the McCullough conviction raises questions as to the propriety of sentence for a man who has lived the vast majority of his life without harming anyone, and who, arrested from his retirement home, presents no threat, sentence only comes after guilt is found.

Had this ice cold case been reopened because of some scientific discovery that provided substantial evidence that couldn’t have been know before, or had Jack McCullough confessed because he didn’t want to go to his grave bearing the weight of his crime, the 55 years between the murder of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph and the conviction of McCullough would have disappeared.

But that didn’t happen, and instead he was convicted on the accusations of ghosts. No judge should have allowed this prosecution to proceed, but then, few judges would have had the guts to toss it out. No one can defend themselves against ghosts. McCullough, whether guilty or innocent, never had a chance.

18 comments on “Defending Against Ghosts

  1. SHG


    Objection, hearsay.

    I’ll allow it.


    Objection, confrontation.

    Denied.

    Objection, lack of foundation.

    Subject to connection.

    Objected…

    Move on, counselor.

    On appeal, it will be corrected, explained, sanitized, rationalized or, if none of the foregoing work, just magically disappear as if it never happened.

  2. SHG

    As I said in the post, when the prosecution has valid evidence to offer, it’s subject to rigorous application of the rules of evidence. When the prosecution has crap evidence, the rules evaporate and they get to throw whatever they have against the wall. To do otherwise would be to preclude the prosecution, and it takes a strong, intellectually honest judge to toss a heinous murder.

  3. A Voice of Sanity

    Huh???

    I go to my standard question here:

    What did the state prove and how did they prove it?

    That his mother might have said that she might have suspected him? That’s enough now?

  4. SHG

    That his half-sister said that his mother said on her death bed in 1994 that he admitted his guilt to her, which the half-sister decided to reveal 17 years later.

    Is that enough now? He was convicted.

  5. A Voice of Sanity

    So … we should turn the system over to psychics and mediums? If I am ever prosecuted maybe instead of a lawyer I should hire a witchdoctor in a grass skirt who can read the entrails of a chicken.

    I’m right you know. 98% are idiots.

  6. SHG

    This is where you go off the rails. The problem isn’t the reasoning behind allowing bad evidence in, but that they wanted to get the bad guy and they did.

  7. Andromedus

    Thanks; I was hoping to hear your commentary on this story.

    Did you see this bit of cruel irony (from an AP story in USA Today): “…he pointed to a white box that he said contained 4,000 pages of FBI documents that he said would prove he was not in Sycamore when Ridulph disappeared. His attorneys had argued during the trial that the material supported McCullough’s alibi, but Hallock ruled it inadmissible because the people in the documents were dead and could not be cross-examined.”

  8. Nick

    It will disappear because by the time the case works its way through the appeals process, the now 73 year old man will likely be dead. Not helped by the quality of prison medical care/

  9. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    Frankly, this story shocks the conscience . . . Maybe they™ should make a law to even the playing field for situations like this, where the defendant can challenge the prosecution to a coin flip to determine innocence or guilt . . .

    It can be called – are you ready for this?? A “flip off” to justice!! . . .

    At least then, through the strategic use of the “flip off challenge”, the defendant would have a fifty percent chance of success, rather than a zero probability . . .

    Hell, while we’re at it, let’s bring back “trial by battle”, cuz that is a justice system which is so much more entertaining than boring ol’ legal evidence, objections, arguments, and other such nonsense . . .

  10. LTMC

    It will never cease to amaze me how fast and loose trial judges play with Crawford material when they’ve already convinced themselves that the Defendant is guilty. Crawford is that rare breed of SCOTUS jurisprudence known as “a straight-forward opinion.” If it’s (a) testimonial, (b) there was no prior opportunity to cross-examine, and (c) it doesn’t fall under the Davis v. Washington’s “ongoing emergency” exception, it’s not supposed to come in. They can even justify this with the abomination that is Williams v. Illinois, because this isn’t a Melendez-Diaz/Bullcoming situation with lab workers testifying. But hey, who needs the law?

    Thomas Paine’s alarum seems appropriate here:

    “An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.” — Dissertations on First Principles of Government, July 7, 1795

  11. Casey Porter

    Quoted directly from the MOTION FOR JUDGMENT NOTWITHSTANDING THE VERDICT
    OR A NEW TRIAL:

    .. the six pictures that were placed in front of Kathy Sigman Chapman for identification were impressively suggestive for the following reasons:

    A. All five filler photos had a white background while the Defendant’s photo had a black background,

    B. All five filler photo shad gentlemen wearing a suit and tie while the Defendant’s photo had different clothing,

    C. All five filler photos had the gentlemen looking off slightly to the right in a yearbook style pose while the Defendant was staring Directly into the camera for his picture,

    D. All five filler photos had gentlemen with neatly combed hair while the Defendant had unruly hair in his photo,

    E. Defendant’s photo had an amateur quality appearance which caused his ear to shine brightly in the picture,

    F. All five filler photos were taken directly from a yearbook while the Defendant’s was not.

    You tell me if that is a fair trial…..

  12. Casey

    There has been a lot of development in the Jack McCullough case since December of 2012. They release more of the FBI documents. I would appreciate you looking at the following pages:

    [Ed. Note: Links deleted per rules.]

    Thank you,

    Casey

  13. KyleS

    I find this statement very irresponsible…

    ‘While the McCullough conviction raises questions as to the propriety of sentence for a man who has lived the vast majority of his life without harming anyone, and who, arrested from his retirement home, presents no threat, sentence only comes after guilt is found.’

    If you look in to Mr. McCullough’s history, you will certainly see that he did not live a life ‘without harming anyone’. The women that he raped and molested would beg to differ with you.

    1. SHG Post author

      There is no suggestion that he raped or molested any women. So if you think you know something that no one knows, give it up and use your real full name so that they know who to find. If you’ve got nothing, than this smear is a reflection on you, not him, and crawl back under your rock.

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