Defending the Coldest of Cold Cases: a 1957 Murder

“St. Louis will have records of everything,” Jack Daniel McCullough told the Associated Press. “If somebody would go there, it would exonerate me.”

Not quite, Mr. McCullough. A fire 38 years ago destroyed the records of his Air Force entrance physical. McCullough insists he was taking the physical exam in Chicago back in 1957, when 7-year-old Maria Ridulph disappeared from her home in rural Sycamore.

What’s a man to do when he’s on trial for Ridulph’s murder, and the only evidence of his alibi was destroyed in a fire?

Play defense. Read and react. We covered most of the prosecution’s probable case earlier this week. A witness who identified McCullough as the stranger who approached Ridulph moments before her abduction, his record of sex abuse, and a couple of jailhouse informants make up the majority of case against him.

According to the Sun-Times, the witness, Kathy Sigman Chapman, who was playing with Ridulph shortly before she disappeared, testified in court Tuesday that McCullough was the man who identified himself as “Johnny” and asked if the girls would like a piggyback ride. Chapman ran home to get her mittens. When she returned, both “Johnny” and Maria were gone.

Witness accounts are noted for their lack of accuracy, even if the witness’ identification of the perpetrator came moments after the crime. One would imagine that a witness’ ability to accurately identify someone beyond a reasonable doubt after more than 50 years would be even less reliable. We’ll see how the defense treats this issue.

As for the prior sex abuse allegations and conviction, McCullough’s attorney’s job is going to be to simply mitigate the damage. Jurors hear “history of sex abuse” and will want to believe that he is guilty here as well. If the evidence of his two prior victims is admitted, the defense is simply going to have to emphasize the distinction between his prior acts and murder, as well as emphasize that past conduct does not prove present guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

The last major part of the prosecutor’s case is the jailhouse informants. Kirk Swaggerty, presumably the same Swaggerty that was convicted of murder last year, is expected to testify that McCullough told him in great detail about the abduction and murder of Maria. A second informant is expected to testify that McCullough, a former police officer in Washington state, approached him about harming Swaggerty.

Credibility will be vital to both of the informants’ testimonies. The defense will probably question them about their motives for testifying, including any rewards they are receiving in terms of their sentences. Also, the informants’ own criminal records may be introduced if any of the crimes reflect a history of dishonesty.

To inject doubt into the case, the defense will likely emphasize that many questions remain unanswered. The defense has already pointed out that there is no murder weapon, no witness to the abduction or murder, and no DNA evidence. Also, why would a former cop, presumably familiar with jailhouse snitching, be dumb enough to confess to murdering a child? Fellow inmates presumably wouldn’t be kind or loyal to an ex-cop, especially one who admits to murdering a child.

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Defending the Coldest of Cold Cases: a 1957 Murder