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Maria Ridulph cold case: The fog of time

Cold as Ice
Cold as Ice 43:37
Jack Daniel McCullough (left) and Maria Ridulph Sycamore Police Dept.; CBS

(CBS) - Steal a necklace and hide out long enough: you can't be prosecuted. Time limits on the filing of criminal charges, known as "Statutes of Limitations," vary from state to state and from crime to crime, but the purpose is the same: to give defendants the opportunity to collect exculpatory evidence before it is lost, witnesses die or memories fade away.

WATCH: "48 Hours:" Cold as Ice

The major exception is for the worst crime of all, murder. There are currently no statutes of limitations on murder in any state in this country. This became an issue in a trial I covered in 2012: the case of 73-year-old Jack Daniel McCullough, which authorities say is the "coldest" case ever to come to trial in the U.S.

In 2011, McCullough, was charged with a kidnapping and murder that took place more than 50 years earlier. On December 3, 1957, 7 year-old Maria Ridulph, a sweet, brown-eyed child, was snatched from a street corner in Sycamore, Ill., and later found murdered in a case so sensational that President Eisenhower reportedly requested regular briefings from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

WATCH: Jack McCullough questioned about 1957 murder of Maria Ridulph

McCullough was interviewed and polygraphed in 1957 by the FBI, but ultimately discounted as a suspect. Over a half century later, in 2008, new evidence, including deathbed statements made by McCullough's mother, surfaced in the case which made him once again a suspect - but by then, not only were all the original investigators dead, but vital evidence in the case was missing from police files. When McCullough went on trial, in September 2012, the star prosecution witness was a 62-year-old grandmother. She had been with Maria just minutes before she was kidnapped but was never able to identify the kidnapper until 2010. That's when she was shown a photo lineup and picked McCullough out as the man she saw briefly in the dark when the now-grandmother was only 8 years old, and McCullough was 18.

WATCH: Teen's diary offers account of sister's 1957 murder investigation

And there is this: with the original FBI investigators in the case dead, Judge James Hallock, who presided over the bench trial, disallowed as evidence their decades-old reports. McCullough's attorneys say that decision, not a problem in contemporary cases where police officers can testify, was fatal to his defense. Those reports, they contend, contained the very reason why McCullough was originally discounted as a suspect in 1957: he appeared to have an alibi. Documents in the FBI files suggest that McCullough had been making a collect phone call 40 miles away from Sycamore when the kidnapping took place. Because he excluded those old reports, Judge Hallock never considered the alibi evidence contained in them. On Sept. 14, 2012, he found McCullough guilty of the murder of Maria Ridulph.

However, the story doesn't end there. McCullough filed an appeal claiming that faulty memories and evidence disallowed by the judge denied him a fair trial. After serving five years of a life sentence in an Illinois penitentiary, a new judge threw out McCullough's conviction and set him free, after a newly elected state's attorney found "clear and convincing evidence" that McCullough had been wrongly found guilty.

Interestingly, had the same crime occurred in as many as 31 other countries, including France and Italy, McCullough could not have been prosecuted. There, time limits on murder prosecutions, which average 20 to 25 years, balance the need to punish the guilty with protecting the accused.

No doubt, trials like that of Jack Daniel McCullough will keep legal scholars debating this question: When the stakes at a trial are the highest, shouldn't the need for reliable evidence be the greatest?

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