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Man convicted in girl's 1957 killing: "I'm innocent"

SYCAMORE, Ill. --A former security guard serving a life sentence in the 1957 slaying of a 7-year-old Illinois girl pleaded with a judge Tuesday to quickly consider his latest bid for freedom, citing aprosecutor's scathing review of the investigation that landed him in prison.

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Jack McCullough: "I'm not a murderer"

With his legs and wrists shackled, 76-year-old Jack McCullough spoke up at the end of a 20-minute hearing that never got beyond housekeeping matters and didn't even mention the stunning review released last week by the county's public prosecutor until McCullough himself brought it up. He pleaded to know how long the post-conviction petition process would take, but got no clear answer.

"Your honor," McCullough said, "I've been in prison locked up now for almost five years, I'm innocent, and I can prove I'm innocent. There has to be an end to this somewhere."

But DeKalb County Judge William Brady responded that all he could do at present was appoint him an attorney and outline the process that could result in a new trial.

"Mr. McCullough, you have started the process to try and bring it to an end but it's a process. It is not a black and white issue that is easily resolved without further review," the judge said.

McCullough was convicted in 2012 in the slaying of Maria Ridulph in the small community of Sycamore. It was one of the oldest cases in the U.S. ever to go to trial. But last week, the DeKalb County state's attorney released the findings of a six-month review that convinced him McCullough could not have committed the crime. State's Attorney Richard Schmack, who had no role in McCullough's prosecution, found fault with the investigation and said new evidence and a review of old documents corroborated an alibi.

The review gives new momentum to McCullough's bid for freedom. Tuesday's hearing took place in a DeKalb County courtroom in Sycamore, where Ridulph was abducted, stabbed and choked to death. But the review is also plunging Ridulph's family back into the decades of emotional turmoil they've endured since the little girl disappeared from a quiet street corner where she was playing in the snow more than half a century ago.

Her brother, Charles Ridulph, filed a motion Monday asking the judge to appoint a special prosecutor. Like other family members, he remains convinced McCullough is the killer and he hopes an outside prosecutor will ensure the man stays behind bars.

"My sister Maria was snatched away, raped and murdered, abandoned in the woods," Ridulph, 70, of Sycamore, wrote in the filing, according to The (DeKalb) Daily Chronicle. "And now, Richard Schmack has abandoned her yet again and he has done so for the wrong reasons."

Schmack said in a filing last week that his review, which was prompted by McCullough's motion for post-conviction relief, turned up serious missteps during the investigation and prosecution. He also said there was new evidence supporting a McCullough alibi.

Jack McCullough questioned about 1957 Maria Ridulph disappearance

The new evidence included recently subpoenaed phone records that proved McCullough made a collect call to his parents from a phone booth in downtown Rockford, Illinois, about 35 miles from Sycamore, just minutes after the abduction took place.

That had always been McCullough's professed alibi, though the precise location of the phone had previously come under doubt, with some suggesting it may have been closer.

Besides those records, Schmack's conclusions were also based on a review of thousands of pages of police reports and other old documents that he says were improperly barred from evidence during McCullough's trial. Some of them were only recently uncovered, he said.

Some of those documents discredit testimony from McCullough's sister that the abduction had taken place earlier, Schmack determined, meaning there was no possibility McCullough could have committed the crime and then driven to Rockford in time to place that call.