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.