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Local Column

Olson: Without investigation, questions linger on Jack McCullough conviction

Eric Olson
Eric Olson

In the news game, they teach you to always ask the question, even if you think you know the answer.

Too bad no one in the justice system will do the same with the allegations being made by Jack McCullough.

McCullough’s conviction in the 1957 Sycamore kidnapping and murder of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph was vacated in April 2016, more than 3 1/2 years after his conviction.

In August 2016, former DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack asked a judge to have a special prosecutor investigate whether a Seattle police detective committed perjury during McCullough’s trial, along with other possible police misconduct.

In January 2017, we reported that no investigation had been done because prosecutors from nine different counties, as well as the Illinois Attorney General’s office, had declined to look into the matter.

Finally, the state’s attorney’s appellate prosecutor’s office agreed to handle it. The four-page report from Special Prosecutor Charles Colburn, which was made public Friday, showed they conducted a narrow investigation.

The only allegation Colburn examined was whether Irene Lau, a now-retired Seattle Police detective, had committed perjury when she testified at McCullough's trial in September 2012. Although video of an interview Lau did with McCullough during an aborted polygraph exam didn’t match her testimony, Colburn concluded she didn’t commit perjury.

That wasn't a big surprise. It's hard to convict someone of perjury, and Colburn laid out why he didn't believe there was proof a crime was committed.

Aside from allegations in the lawsuit that McCullough, 78, filed in 2017, I’ve seen no evidence of a conspiracy to frame McCullough, and I'm not claiming one existed. Had there been one, though, Lau would have been but a bit player.

Colburn didn't examine the conduct of any of the key investigators in the case. In his report to DeKalb County Judge William Brady, Colburn said that the investigation of McCullough had concluded in November 2012, and thus the three-year statute of limitations to file felony charges had expired. Lau was not covered by the statute of limitations because she is not an Illinois resident, Colburn wrote.

McCullough was still imprisoned, his appeal denied, when Colburn says the statute of limitations expired. By that logic, authorities are free to frame you for anything without repercussion, so long as they close the case and you stay behind bars for more than three years. That's scary.

The justice system, like any human institution, is not infallible. Police and prosecutors need protection from personal liability to do their jobs without fear. We want and need them to be relentless in the pursuit of justice.

They have to do it honestly, though, and we want them to be accountable.

McCullough was convicted and exonerated without physical evidence. People hold differing opinions on his innocence.

Regardless, McCullough has been declared innocent and has filed a federal lawsuit claiming he was framed. The public has yet to see an investigation of those claims. Perhaps there will be a civil trial that will shed some light on it. Eventually, the public should learn why this story unfolded as it did.

If the question isn't asked, the answer is not given.

• Eric Olson is general manager of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email eolson@shawmedia.com, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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