CHICAGO — An Illinois judge vacated the conviction of a 76-year-old man in a 1957 killing and ordered his immediate release from prison Friday, meaning that one of the oldest cold cases to be tried in US history has officially gone cold again.
Jack McCullough was sentenced to life in prison in 2012 in the death of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph in Sycamore, about 70 miles west of Chicago.
In a review of documents last year, a prosecutor found evidence that supported the former police officer’s long-held alibi that he had been 40 miles away in Rockford at the time of Maria’s disappearance.
Judge William P. Brady said Friday that he knew Maria’s murder had haunted the small town of Sycamore for decades, and that he had also lost sleep over the case.
‘‘I’m not blind to the importance of this proceeding to many people,’’ he said, minutes before ordering McCullough’s release.
McCullough, in handcuffs, appeared shaken by the decision, rocking back and forth, then taking a deep breath. Family members behind him hugged and cried. Moments later, McCullough, of Washington state, looked back and smiled broadly.
On the other side of the room, Maria’s brother and sister displayed little emotion.
A few hours later, McCullough’s stepdaughter, Janey O'Connor, drove McCullough away from a jail near the courthouse. McCullough, wearing street clothes, smiled to reporters from the back seat.
The DeKalb County state’s attorney who played a central role in pushing for McCullough’s release, told Brady earlier that his office would not retry McCullough if a retrial was ordered. Richard Schmack said there are no legal grounds to try someone again when prosecutors are convinced of that person’s innocence.
Schmack, who wasn’t involved in McCullough’s case and was elected to the state’s attorney post as that 2012 trial was coming to an end, filed a scathing report with the court last month. He had conducted a six-month review of evidence, including newly discovered phone records, and his report picked the case apart, point-by-point.
He said in an e-mail that he was reviewing the judge’s ruling and would not be commenting Friday.
Maria’s disappearance made headlines nationwide in the 1950s, when reports of child abductions were rare.
She had been playing in the snow with a friend on Dec. 3, 1957, when a young man approached, introduced himself as ‘‘Johnny’’ and offered them piggyback rides, according to police reports. Maria’s friend went home to get mittens, and when she came back, Maria and the man were gone. Forest hikers found her remains five months later.
At trial, prosecutors said McCullough was Johnny, because he went by the name John Tessier in his youth, when he lived in Sycamore. They said McCullough, then 18, dragged Maria away, choked her, and stabbed her to death.
McCullough’s long-held alibi was that he had been in Rockford, attempting to enlist in the Air Force at a military recruiting station, on the night Maria disappeared.
Schmack said newly discovered phone records proved McCullough had made a collect call to his parents at 6:57 p.m. from a phone booth in downtown Rockford — which is 40 miles northwest of where Maria was abducted between 6:45 p.m. and 6:55 p.m.
Schmack also reviewed police reports and hundreds of other documents, including from the Air Force recruitment office, which he said had been improperly barred at trial. In his review he said the documents contained ‘‘a wealth of information pointing to McCullough’s innocence, and absolutely nothing showing guilt.’’
He also noted that Maria’s friend had identified McCullough as the killer five decades later from an array of six photographs; McCullough’s picture stood out, partly because everyone but him wore suit jackets and their pictures were professional photos.
O’Connor said she had been convinced of her stepfather’s innocence from the start. ‘‘Jack was just a normal person doing his grandpa thing, and his happened to him,’’ she said.
She said he told her he’s looking forward to shopping for his children and grandchildren, because he has ‘‘a lot of birthdays and Christmases to catch up on.’’