CHICAGO (CBS) -- A DeKalb County judge has ordered a new trial for a 76-year-old man convicted of killing 7-year-old Maria Ridulph in 1957, after prosecutors said new evidence shows Jack McCullough was wrongly convicted.
Judge William P. Brady also ordered McCullough's release on bond, pending a new trial.
DeKalb County State's Attorney Richard Schmack has said newly obtained phone records show he could not possibly have abducted and killed Maria in Sycamore in 1957.
Defense attorneys and Schmack argued McCullough should be released, and Brady agreed, vacating McCullough's conviction, ordering a new trial, and allowing McCullough to go free on bond.
"This court does believe the defendant has met his burden, and it will grant the request for a new trial," Brady said.
Schmack has said he does not plan to retry McCullough, but Brady said a special prosecutor could be appointed to review the case. Maria's older brother, Charles, has asked Brady to appoint a special prosecutor to prosecute McCullough, and he has hired an attorney to help him with that request. Brady will consider that request on April 22, but indicated a special prosecutor would have the discretion to decide what to do with the case after reviewing all the evidence.
McCullough released a statement through attorney Gabe Fuentes praising the judge's handling of the case.
"Mr. McCullough also appreciates the courageous and independent actions of the prosecutor in this case, Mr. Richard Schmack, for having acknowledged the errors that were the basis for the Court's decision today," the statement said.
Maria disappeared from a street corner in Sycamore, where she and a young friend had been playing on Dec. 3, 1957. Her body was found lying in a field in northwestern Illinois five months later.
McCullough was arrested in 2011 in Seattle, nearly 54 years after Maria's death. He was convicted in 2012, and sentenced to life in prison.
Schmack said "newly discovered evidence" shows it is impossible McCullough was in Sycamore when Maria vanished. His office said phone records show McCullough placed a call from a pay phone from the post office in downtown Rockford, about 35 miles away, less than 15 minutes after Maria disappeared.
In December 1957, McCullough was a 17-year-old Sycamore resident called John Tessier whose family lived about two blocks from the street corner where Maria was last seen.
McCullough was arrested in 2011 in Seattle, nearly 54 years after Maria's death. His trial the next year is considered one of the oldest cold cases to go to trial in the U.S. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
At the time of McCullough's arrest, authorities said McCullough had been an initial suspect in the investigation, but the case went cold after he joined the military and changed his name.
Schmack said his office has obtained phone records showing McCullough placed a call from a pay phone from the post office in downtown Rockford shortly before 7 p.m. on Dec. 3, 1957.
Documents filed in the case show Maria disappeared sometime between 6:45 p.m. and 6:55 p.m., and prosecutors said even if she had been abducted as early as 6:30 p.m., McCullough would have had to average more than 100 mph to cover the distance from Sycamore to Rockford by the time he made the call.
Schmack said it took him six months to review 5,000 pages of evidence, but he's now convinced McCullough did not abduct Maria.
Schmack said a review ordered by the judge in McCullough's case found several other errors, including:
• A suggestive photo array showed to Maria's friend, who picked out McCullough's picture 53 years later from an array of six photos. McCullough's picture was a snapshot of him wearing a shirt with no coat, and a dark background; while the other five were professional yearbook pictures of young men wearing suit coats, and light backgrounds. McCullough also was the only person in the array who lived in the neighborhood where Maria disappeared.
• Thousands of pages of police reports improperly excluded from the case, pointing to McCullough's innocence.
• Mistaken testimony from McCullough's sister that she saw police searching for Maria an hour before she was reported missing.
• False testimony that there was a streetlight on the corner where Maria's friend saw a man she later identified as McCullough.
McCullough was charged by former DeKalb County State's Attorney Clay Campbell, who lost to Schmack two months after he was convicted in 2012. Schmack's decision comes little more than a year after an Illinois Appellate Court panel upheld his conviction.
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