This article was originally published on 12/19/2014 by the Chicago Sun-Times
A man who served 17 years for a crime he didn’t commit shouldn’t have to plead for a pardon.
But that’s Gordon “Randy” Steidl’s plight.
He was released from an Illinois prison on May 28, 2004 after U.S. District Court Judge ruled Steidl probably would have been acquitted on charges he stabbed to death two people in 1986, if the jury had heard all the evidence.
When Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan chose not to pursue an appeal in Steidl’s case, he became the 18th person to be exonerated since 1977 after having been sentenced to death.
Once out of prison, Steidl faced the same discrimination that other ex-cons faced.
His job prospects were nil to none when a prospective employer learned he had been convicted of a double murder.
In 2011 and 2013, respectively, he successfully sued the Illinois State Police, the Paris Illinois Police Department, and Edgar County, and settled with those entities for a combined $6 million.
But money can’t buy back 17 years of a man’s life, nor can it buy a good reputation.
Despite his freedom, Steidl is stuck in a prison without bars.
Unlike most of the men in Illinois who were facing a death penalty, Steidl was white, and from the small town of Paris, Ill.
It was sheer genius on the part of advocates pushing for a moratorium on the death penalty, to make Steidl the face of the anti-death penalty movement in Illinois.
“His case, conviction and ultimate exoneration was a key catalyst in our efforts to abolish the death penalty in Illinois,” said Cook County Recorder of Deeds Karen A. Yarbrough in a letter dated Dec. 17 addressed to Gov. Pat Quinn.
“It’s time that his sacrifice — 17 years in prison for a crime he did not commit — is honored,” she said.
Although there was enough evidence to convince a U.S. District judge that Steidl was the victim of a tainted prosecution — evidence that included unreliable witnesses and questionable forensics, apparently Quinn is having a difficult time seeing Steidl’s innocence.
“Each case varies. Some require more time, more review than others,” said Katie Hickey, a spokesman for the governor.
“Some of them are still under consideration and this is one of those cases that has not been acted upon. Once the governor has reached a decision, he will continue… he will continue to work on petitions as expeditiously as possible, including this one,” Hickey said.
She pointed out that when Quinn took office six years ago, he faced a backlog of 2,838 clemency petitions.
“After he got in office, the numbers started to go up and the governor has acted on 3,358 petitions. He has made it a real priority,” Hickey said.
But Steidl’s wrongful conviction isn’t the only shocking clemency petition languishing on the governor’s desk.
Anthony Dansberry has been incarcerated since 1991 and his clemency petition has been on Quinn’s desk for four years.
Dansberry’s lawyers claim he has spent 23 years in prison for a murder he did not commit because he was tricked into signing a confession.
He is accused of mugging a 77-year-old suburban woman who later died.
Dansberry, who has a low IQ and cannot read, said he thought he was signing release papers when he was actually signing a prepared confession.
Without clemency, Dansberry will be in prison until he is eligible for parole in 2029.
Quinn has only a month left in office and there is an estimated 3,000 clemency petitions on his desk. It is unlikely that everyone crying out for mercy will be heard.
But there’s no excuse for ignoring the blatant injustice that Steidl and Dansberry’s incarceration represents.
It would be a waste of power to leave these egregious cases as unfinished business.