SYCAMORE — An Illinois judge has granted a certificate of innocence to a Washington state man who was wrongly convicted in 2012 of the 1957 kidnapping and killing of a 7-year-old girl.

The DeKalb County judge formally declared 77-year-old Jack McCullough innocent during a Wednesday court hearing. The certificate will allow McCullough to sue Illinois for damages for his wrongful conviction in Maria Ridulph’s killing.

Maria Ridulph. | Sun-Times files

A prosecutor concluded last year that evidence backed McCullough’s alibi that he had been 40 miles away when Maria disappeared. A judge agreed, ordering McCullough’s release after he had served four years of a life sentence.

McCullough said at a hearing last week that he wants justice. He says he’s been portrayed “as a monster” and that people still think he’s one.

Another judge had convicted Jack McCullough in Maria’s death, in one of the oldest unsolved U.S. cases ever to go to trial. McCullough was sentenced to life in prison.

Maria’s disappearance made headlines nationwide in the 1950s, when reports of child abductions were rare.

She had been playing outside in the snow with a friend on Dec. 3, 1957, when a young man approached, introduced himself as “Johnny” and offered them piggyback rides. Maria’s friend dashed home to grab mittens, and when she came back, Maria and the man were gone.

At trial, prosecutors said McCullough was Johnny, because he went by John Tessier in his youth. They said McCullough, then 18, dragged Maria away, choked and stabbed her to death.

Schmack wasn’t involved in McCullough’s case and was elected to the state’s attorney post as McCullough’s trial came to an end.

McCullough’s long-held alibi was that he was in Rockford, attempting to enlist with the U.S. Air Force at a military recruiting station, on the night Maria disappeared. Schmack’s report cited newly discovered phone records that proved McCullough had, as he long-claimed, 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.

Members of the girl’s family have remained convinced that McCullough is guilty and have sought the appointment of a special prosecutor in an attempt to keep him behind bars.

Contributing: Stefano Esposito

Maria Ridulph is buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Sycamore, Ill. | Associated Press