Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Casey Anthony and John Tessier

Posted By on 07.13.11 at 11:32 AM

Maria Ridulph
  • Maria Ridulph
UPDATE: The Saint Louis fire mentioned below did destroy the air force records of John Tessier / Jack Daniel McCullough. Here's the Associated Press story reporting the lost records under a Boston Globe headline "Alibi is lost to suspect in ’57 slaying." Is that headline naive? My story below reports that McCullough (but originally John Tessier) claims he could not have killed seven-year-old Maria Ridulph in Sycamore, Illinois, in 1957 because he has an "iron-clad alibi" — he was in Chicago that day taking medical tests in order to join the air force. He insisted his air force file stored in Saint Louis would exonerate him. But did McCullough say that knowing the file burned up in 1973? He was in the military almost nonstop from 1957 to 1973 — first the air force, then the army. Personnel files are more important to veterans who put in that much time than they are to draftees who did a two-year active duty hitch. I'm guessing many of them have never heard of the National Personnel Records Center in Saint Louis. McCullough knew all about it.

It's nice to see the press rallying around the jury that acquitted Casey Anthony. Said the Tribune editorial page Sunday, "The case was tried in the courtroom, not the living room, and the evidence came up short. Stop blaming the jurors."

The editorial was less a comment on the trial itself — which saw Anthony accused of murdering her two-year-old daughter, Caylee — than on the raspberries from the peanut gallery. Said the Tribune: "The verdict from the couch: The jury blew it. CNN legal analyst Nancy Grace called the jury 'kooky.' Fox News host Bill O'Reilly's post-verdict recap was headlined, 'Dumb beyond a reasonable doubt.' Commenters on Internet news sites have called the jurors cowards, idiots and worse...'"

It's easy to despise Nancy Grace, who also reacted to the not-guilty verdict — as the New York Times's Frank Bruni reminded us Sunday — with a scornful "the devil is dancing." And if you're an ink-stained wretch with no hope of riding the first wave of reaction, the way to be in the second wave is high-minded. As was the Tribune. As was Tribune columnist Clarence Page, who wrote Sunday, "As bitter as the pill may be to swallow sometimes, evidence matters." No cause of death could be established, Page observed, sympathizing with how hard it must be "for a jury to send a young woman to death row or even a life sentence in prison when they know another narrative is just as plausible as the one prosecutors present."

Just as plausible? As painful as the prosecutors' theory was to believe — Casey killed her daughter three years ago in Florida because motherhood was intruding on her hard-partying lifestyle — the defense alternative felt more unlikely: Caylee drowned accidentally in her grandparents' swimming pool and her grandfather for some reason decided to help make the death look like a murder by putting duct tape on the girl's face and leaving the body in nearby woods. Casey's failure to report her daughter missing for 31 days, and the bizarre, easily pierced lies she told to explain why she hadn't, made her defense even less believable.

The jurors weren't happy with their verdict. "Not guilty doesn't mean innocent," said one. ""I just swear to God I wish we had more evidence to put her away. I truly do. But it wasn't there," said another.

These comments suggest something interesting: that the jurors' — or some of the jurors' — visceral belief that Casey Anthony was guilty added to the burden of proof they demanded of the prosecution before they'd convict her. To put it another way, they would rather have returned the wrong verdict for the right reasons than the right verdict for the wrong reasons. The dignity of the process mattered more to them than the results.

There's nobility in that, though you wouldn't have found Henry Fonda starring in the movie version.

But if there wasn't enough evidence to convict Casey Anthony, what hope is there that the 54-year-old unsolved murder of a seven-year-old Sycamore, Illinois, girl will finally see justice done? Maria Ridulph disappeared in December of 1957 while playing near her home, and her body was discovered five months later in woods some 120 miles to the northwest. A local teenager, John Tessier, was a suspect, but he had an alibi — he gone to Chicago that day.

On July 6, Tessier, his name now changed to Jack Daniel McCullough, was arrested in Seattle and charged with being a fugitive from justice; the point of this is to hold him until he can be extradited to Illinois to face murder charges. The Seattle Times reported that his alibi "started to unravel last year when detectives contacted a former girlfriend of McCullough's and asked whether she had old photographs of the two of them. When she pulled one out of a frame, she discovered an unused train ticket from the day of the crime, according to the affidavit of probable cause."

But McCullough, insisting on his innocence, told the Chicago Tribune his stepfather wound up giving him a ride to Chicago — where he was going to take some medical tests before enlisting in the military — and afterward he hitchhiked to Rockford, where his stepfather picked him up and drove him the 40 miles to Sycamore. What's more, he made a collect call home from Rockford at three minutes to seven, roughly an hour after Maria Ridulph reportedly disappeared. It's an "iron-clad alibi," McCullough told the Associated Press, and it should be backed up by his military personnel records in Saint Louis.

"“St. Louis will have records of everything,” McCullough said. “If somebody would go there, it would exonerate me.”

Today, who can say how or if John Tessier traveled from Sycamore to Chicago the day Maria Ridulph vanished? As for those records in Saint Louis, they may not exist. Tessier enlisted in the air force in 1957, the Tribune reported, left it in 1962, and later joined the army. But in 1973 a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in Saint Louis destroyed as many as 18 million military personnel files. Of those air force files among which Tessier's would have been kept, 75 percent were lost. And if Tessier's went up in smoke, Tessier, who remained in the army until 1973 (leaving it three months before the fire) would probably know it.

What can be proven 54 years later that would satisfy a jury as mindful of its duty as Casey Anthony's? Even if his stepfather were alive and recalled what happened that day differently than McCullough does, who would not doubt the memory of a man so old?. If McCullough were to change his story and recall that, yes, he did take the train after all but the conductor didn't come around to punch his ticket, what unimpeachable witness could testify that such a thing never happened? If McCullough's air force file turned up intact and no record of his medical exam were in it, who could the DeKalb County prosecutor put on the stand to defend the meticulousness of the 1957 record-keeping?

Press reports say McCullough's life is laced with incidents that call his character into question, such as a charge that he sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl. But far more serious character issues didn't sink the defense of Casey Anthony; that jury set them aside to focus on what it thought mattered.

Some conservative judges hold that conservative justice is all about the process, and the verdicts have nothing to do with it. They have a point.

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