Secrets often lie at the heart of crimes that remain unsolved so long they are said to go "cold." Most are cracked by advances in science, or by someone's need to come clean.
In the Ridulph case, there was no DNA, no confession by the killer. This mystery was solved by circumstantial evidence amassed over four years by bulldog cops and other outsiders who came to Sycamore to stand up for a little girl whose life was stolen.
But it is difficult to reconstruct the past in a courtroom. People die, memories fade and facts can become distorted by the passage of time or shaded by personal grudges and agendas.
As tough as it is to build a cold case, it may be even harder to defend one. Imagine trying to explain what you were doing a year ago. Now imagine trying to explain what you were doing a lifetime ago.
The man convicted last September of kidnapping and murdering Maria Ridulph maintains his innocence. His wife of nearly 20 years and his stepdaughter say he was sacrificed to bring peace of mind to Sycamore. An appeal has been filed and likely will take two years or more to be heard.
Winning a conviction in a crime that occurred in 1957 is a remarkable accomplishment -- proof that no one should get away with murder, even if justice takes 55 years. But a close examination of the case by CNN raises questions about the strength of the evidence, the motives of some of the witnesses and the ability of the court system to fairly and accurately reconstruct history.
The case was reopened after a dying woman implicated her own son 36 years after the fact. Her words, as recalled by two of her daughters, were somewhat cryptic, and there's no way to seek clarification. Even the daughters don't agree on what she said. And, separate from this crime, two siblings had powerful reasons to fear and despise their half brother.
Much of the physical evidence in the case was lost or destroyed over the years, including Maria's doll, which was handled by her killer. Instead, prosecutors relied heavily on evidence that in the past has often proven unreliable: eyewitness identification and the testimony of informants.
Eyewitness identification is not as simple as it might seem. Factors influencing misidentification include the witness's distance from the perpetrator, the lighting at the crime scene and the conditions under which a witness later views a lineup. Jailhouse informants bring their own baggage: They're criminals, or at least accused of crimes, and can be looking to trade testimony for leniency.
In the Ridulph case, three inmates locked up with the suspect told different stories about how he described killing Maria: by dropping her on her head, or by suffocating or strangling her while trying to silence her cries.
Yet a forensic pathologist testified Maria was stabbed.
The eyewitness whose testimony was crucial in winning a conviction was a child when she saw the kidnapper for just a few moments. More than half a century passed before she picked him out in a photo lineup. She is certain she chose the right man, but others question whether she picked up cues from the investigators and tried to please them with her choice. They wonder whether the photo itself -- slightly different from the others she was shown -- could have prejudiced her.
Illinois is second only to Texas in mistaken eyewitness identifications, according to the Innocence Project, which began its work in 1992. Faulty identifications played a role in 24 cases -- more than half of the state's 43 wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA evidence. Nationwide, 75% of 309 wrongful convictions involved faulty eyewitness identifications; 15% were based partly on the testimony of informants who later recanted or were proven to have lied.
It was the job of Judge James Hallock to sort everything out. The defense requested a bench trial, and so prosecutors had to prove guilt to just one person, not 12. That one person, Hallock, had little experience with murder trials.
Hallock's verdict in this case came after four days of testimony. It was based, the judge said, on the credibility of the eyewitness and the jailhouse informants.
He expressed confidence that his decision would be upheld on appeal.
The goal in every trial is a fair hearing of both sides. And in most trials, witnesses take the stand to recount what they saw with their own eyes, what they heard with their own ears. But in cold cases, those witnesses often are dead.
When that's true, prosecutors and defendants are sometimes forced to rely on second-hand evidence known as hearsay. And in some states, including Illinois, the law is evolving to allow hearsay evidence under exceptional circumstances.
In this cold case, a hearsay statement that favored the prosecution was allowed into evidence; other hearsay evidence that favored the defense was kept out. And so, a mother was able to accuse her son from the grave, but his alibi, buried in thousands of pages of old FBI reports, was never presented in court.
A man was convicted and sent to prison for the rest of his life. A victim's family embraced long-awaited justice, and Sycamore breathed a sigh of relief. But was the courtroom reconstruction of history unfairly one-sided?
Was justice really served?
'I can't find Maria!'
Kathy ran up and down Archie Place, calling her best friend's name as a gentle snow fell on the evening of December 3, 1957. There was no sign of Maria.
Kathy rushed up to a side door at the Ridulphs' house, where Maria's big brother, Chuck, was spinning records on the hi-fi with his friend Randy. Maria's lost, she told them. I can't find Maria!