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From the street to death row in 97 days

Posted: Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Former death row inmate Randy Steidl will be meeting with legislators in Juneau on Thursday and Friday as part of the Witness To Innocence project, a group made up and run by exonerated inmates.

“The fact is that they cannot debate me,” Steidl said. “I spend a third of my life on death row for a crime I did not commit. There is no debate for that, for the feeling that someone wants to take your life. There were probably many more who were not as lucky as I, it is an irreversible punishment.”

Steidl was questioned in 1986 about the murders of newlyweds Dyke and Karen Rhoads in the small farming community of Paris, Ill. and assumed police were investigating all people in the area.

Steidl did not know any of the victims, cooperated with police and had a corroborated alibi for the night of the murders, but he and a friend were arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death within 90 days.

“From the streets to death row in 97 days,” Steidl said. “It shows you how fast the system works when they get you on their sights.”

When the handcuffs first went on him Steidl said he was incredulous.

“This was after I had given the police my alibi,” Steidl said. “My first thought was what kind of snitch did they run in on me. I had already corroborated with the police. It was a shock being booked for a double murder.”

Steidl was poorly represented, had no DNA evidence against him and two witnesses who fabricated testimony against him due to police misconduct.

Steidl believed it was an organized crime operation that killed the newlyweds and that the socially conscious couple had accidentally witnessed guns and large sums of money being loaded into vehicles.

While in prison, Steidl lost his home and custody of his son.

He spent his first 12 years inside trying to prove his innocence. With the involvement of the Center for Wrongful Convictions, Steidl was given a new sentencing hearing that resulted in life without parole in 1999. The center continued to fight for Steidl’s freedom for five more years but to no avail.

It was an investigation by the Illinois State Police that proved local law enforcement and prosecutors had framed Steidl and co-defendant Herbert Whitlock.

The investigator assigned to review the case in 2000 found glaring red flags and took it to the high command, who told the investigator they were “pulling the plug, the case is too politically sensitive.”

Retired Illinois State Police Lt. Michale Callahan, that investigator, recently published “Since When Is Murder Too Politically Sensitive.”

Callahan had found evidence linking the murders to one of then-Gov. George Ryan’s major campaign contributors, and it was the governor and his State Police lieutenant colonel at the time who ordered the case closed.

Said Steidl, “Those involved had ties to the prison, the governors office, lawyers and prosecutors… they had power, money and influence and they control everything. Illinois is not the most corrupt state, but they are runners up.”

The investigator continued to take the case up the chains of command and the real person responsible was Karen Rhoads’ employer, a man whose major campaign contributions to the governor’s office made the case “too politically sensitive.”

In 2003, federal judge Michael McCuskey overturned Steidl’s conviction and ordered a new trial.

The state re-investigated the case, tested DNA evidence and found no link to Steidl. Illinois State Attorney General Lisa Madigan did not appeal the ruling and Edgar county prosecutors did not retry the case.

“I didn’t believe I was getting released until the very last minute,” Steidl said. ‘At 12 noon, May 28 2004 I walked out of the gates. It was like being reborn, you never forget something like that.”

Steidl was falsely incarcerated for 17 years, 3 months and 3 weeks. As he left prison his wife Patty, mother Bobbie, and his brother Rory, an Illinois policeman for 25 years, escorted him.

Steidl now has a close relationship with his grandchildren and kids, is struggling in the economy, and is speaking out nationwide against the death penalty.

“I have all the worries that everybody else has now,” Steidl said. “I have been speaking for the last five years. It is emotional but if I can just change hearts and minds about this barbaric system. Being in prison is a living hell, and death row is torture because you know the state wants to execute you. One innocent life lost by execution is not worth 10 guilty persons being executed.”

Steidl stated that although DNA is a great safety net it is an awfully small one, as only 17 out of 138 death row inmates across the nation, or 10 percent, have been exonerated.

Steidl helped push the death penalty repeal bill through the Illinois legislature and has helped a bill pass the senate in Montana. Steidl’s testimony before the state senate in New Mexico helped to abolish capital punishment there.

There is currently no death penalty bill in Alaska legislature but there is a resolution related to death penalty with HJR 18, passed in joint resolution on March 7 that is going through various committees. A bill to reinstate the death penalty in the last legislative session died in finance committee.

Alaskans Against the Death Penalty executive director Sue Johnson said that, generally, Alaskans oppose the death penalty.

“We did a poll when the bill first was introduced and found that 59 percent of Alaskans were opposed,” Johnson said in a written statement. “Randy is a good spokesperson. His main point is saying that it doesn’t work.

• Contact Klas Stolpe at 523-2263 or at klas.stolpe@juneauempire.com.



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