This was originally posted in the State Journal Registrar on Jan. 22, 2015.
Even as former Gov. Pat Quinn hastily acted on pardon and clemency requests during his final hours in office earlier this month, one long-awaited petition by a wrongfully convicted central Illinois man went unaddressed.
And so Randy Steidl, who ought to be considered an innocent man without evidence to the contrary, continues to wait for his name to be formally cleared by the state.
Steidl spent 17 years behind bars, including 12 on death row, for a crime he was wrongfully convicted of committing – the horrific 1986 double slaying of newlyweds Dyke and Karen Rhodes in the east-central Illinois town of Paris. Their bodies were found in a burning home, and they had been stabbed dozens of times.
The investigation was a sham from the beginning, built on circumstantial evidence and rife with corruption. Steidl and another man, Herb Whitlock, were arrested. The case moved swiftly through the Edgar County justice system; Steidl was convicted within 90 days of being arrested. He received the death penalty, Whitlock life in prison.
But questions about the investigation quickly surfaced and never went away. A witness description of a knife didn’t match forensic evidence, and another key witness repeatedly recanted statements made to detectives. A former state police investigator later said his supervisors intentionally impeded his ability to look deeper into the case.
A federal judge overturned Steidl’s conviction in 2003, saying he should be released or retried because of ineffective counsel and because he reasonably may have been acquitted had a jury heard all of the evidence.
The case was reinvestigated and DNA evidence tested, but Steidl could not be linked to the crime. The state police commander assigned to review the case concluded Steidl and Whitlock were not involved. He later revealed he was pressured by the state police to not reopen the investigation and said he was told it was “too politically sensitive.”
The Illinois attorney general’s office decided not to appeal the federal judge’s decision. The state appellate prosecutor’s office said it didn’t have enough time to prepare for a new trial, but stubbornly noted there was no statute of limitations on murder and insisted Steidl remained a suspect.
Steidl was released from prison in 2004. Whitlock was released in 2008.
No one else has been arrested in connection with the Rhodes case, and many observers doubt anyone ever will be. The investigation was too hopelessly riddled with mistakes, lies and cover-ups, to the detriment of actual justice for the Rhodes and their loved ones.
Steidl later sued various authorities involved in his wrongful conviction, including the Illinois State Police, the City of Paris, Edgar County, the state’s attorney who prosecuted him and other officials. He was awarded $6 million in civil settlements, including $2.5 million from the state police, which, notably, shelled out an additional $3.7 million on attorneys to fend off Steidl’s claims.
To this day, no one involved in the apparent frame-up has ever apologized or admitted to the wrongdoing that caused Steidl to spend 17 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. It’s a story that has played out repeatedly in Illinois, where 19 of 298 men and women sentenced to death have been exonerated. Illinois has the highest death-penalty exoneration rate in the country.
Steidl’s continued status as a suspect in the still-unresolved Rhodes slayings – if that remains the case – is nearly impossible to justify.
Two other governors, George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich, did not pardon him, but revelations about his case were unfolding and his lawsuits against the government were pending during their terms, so the inaction can be justified.
By now, though, it’s clear that Steidl can’t be connected to the slayings. If he could, someone would have done it, and the government would not have shelled out millions to make him and the whole embarrassing chapter go away.
Quinn formally abolished the death penalty in Illinois and made reviewing pardon requests a priority for his administration. But why he failed to pardon Steidl, who is not guilty of murder in the eyes of the American judicial system, is unclear.
Perhaps Gov. Bruce Rauner will see fit to do the right thing.
Visit our wrongful conviction page on our website for more information on Randy Steidl’s case and other wrongful conviction cases our office has worked on.