Illinois State Police Settle Wrongful Conviction Suit

By DAVID MERCER | December 2, 2011

The Illinois State Police agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle a lawsuit filed by a former death row inmate who spent almost two decades in prison for the 1986 murders of a newlywed couple before a judge released him because of flawed evidence.

The settlement comes after the State Police already spent more than $3.7 million to defend the agency against lawsuits filed by the inmate and another man convicted in the killings and later freed, according to documents obtained by the Better Government Association. The Chicago-based watchdog group, which requested the documents through the Freedom of Information Act, says invoices show most of the $3.7 million was spent on attorneys’ fees.

Lawyers for Gordon Randy Steidl say the settlement, first uncovered by the BGA and confirmed by The Associated Press, amounts to an admission that state investigators had a hand in wrongfully sending a man to prison for more than 17 years, 12 of them on death row, for the killings in the eastern Illinois town of Paris.

“He’s getting a very substantial settlement that indicates to us the Illinois State Police defendants are conceding their role,” said Flint Taylor, one of Steidl’s attorneys. “I think the settlement that the state made is a strong indication that they think he was wrongfully convicted.”

But the State Police maintain the settlement reached Oct. 25 isn’t an admission of wrongdoing or that Steidl shouldn’t have been convicted.

“He was not exonerated and settlement is not a reflection of guilt or innocence, nor is it an admission of any wrongdoing on behalf of Illinois State Police,” spokeswoman Monique Bond said.

She declined to discuss the agency’s reason for settling, saying she’d refer the question to an agency attorney who did not respond to calls from The Associated Press.

Steidl, 60, now lives in Charleston, Ill., where he is active in campaigns against the death penalty. He was traveling this week and not immediately available for comment.

He and a friend, Herb Whitlock, were convicted by separate juries in the 1986 deaths of Karen and Dyke Rhoads. The couple was found in their burning two-story home in Paris, about 60 miles southeast of Champaign. Each had been stabbed more than 20 times.

Steidl, who was 35, was sentenced to death. Whitlock – then 41 – was sent to prison for life.

But there were questions about their convictions early on, and Dyke Rhoads’ brother and sister have said they didn’t believe the men were guilty.

A knife one witness claimed was the murder weapon didn’t match the Rhoads’ wounds. And another witness, who described himself as the town drunk, changed his story. At one point, he said men named “Jim and Ed” killed the young couple.

A former State Police investigator, meanwhile, has said publicly that his superiors kept him from asking key questions. He concluded Steidl and Whitlock were innocent.

The problems with the evidence led a judge to order Steidl be freed or retried. The Illinois Attorney General’s office declined to try Steidl again, and he left prison in 2004.

Whitlock was similarly released in 2008.

The two men filed separate lawsuits against the State Police, city of Paris and a former Edgar County prosecutor who tried their cases, but courts joined their suits. Steidl is still pursuing his lawsuit against the city and prosecutor. Whitlock’s lawsuit continues, as well.

Whitlock’s attorney, Carrie Hall, declined to comment on the settlement. Attorneys for the city and former Edgar County State’s Attorney Michael McFatridge didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

All of the State Police officers named in the lawsuits have since retired, Bond said.

When he was released in 2004, Steidl moved to Missouri with a woman he married while in prison. He moved back to Illinois when his mother became ill, said another of his attorneys, Jan Susler.

His children were 16 and 9 years old when he went to prison, and he saw little of them while he was locked up, she said.

“He now has grandchildren and he’s trying hard to integrate himself into their lives, and it’s going very well,” Susler said. “But it’s very difficult,” she said, adding that the visits he had with his own son and daughter were irregular, brief and, while he was on death row, conducted with Steidl in handcuffs.

Steidl never finished high school or earned his GED, she said. He’s worked only irregularly, though he travels regularly to speak against the death penalty. He was part of a group of former death row inmates who urged Gov. Pat Quinn to do away with the death penalty before the governor abolished it earlier this year.

That work mostly doesn’t pay anything, Susler said, and Steidl’s finances aren’t good.

“They’re terrible, as you might expect for someone who doesn’t have full-time employment and isn’t particularly employable in this economy, even if he had no criminal record,” she said. “Who wants a 60-year-old with a record for a double homicide?”

Susler isn’t sure how long it will take for Steidl to receive the settlement money.

Steidl applied for a pardon that would clear his record entirely several years ago, before Quinn took office, but is still waiting, Taylor said. The attorney said he hopes the State Police’s willingness to settle the case might help persuade the governor.

A Quinn spokeswoman said the governor has about 1,000 clemency petitions in hand, the remains of a backlog of more than 2,500 inherited from his predecessor, Gov. Rod Blagojevich, when Quinn took office in 2009. Quinn has considered roughly 1,500 since he took office and granted 580 pardons, Brooke Anderson said.

She wasn’t sure how long it would be before Steidl’s request was considered.

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