Gordon (Randy) Steidl

Randy Steidl at Northwestern Law (Photo: Jennifer Linzer)

Randy Steidl at Northwestern Law (Photo: Jennifer Linzer)

Steidl's exoneration pushes error rate in Illinois capital cases to more than 6%

Gordon (Randy) Steidl was released from the Illinois Correctional Center at Danville on May 28, 2004, making him the eighteenth person to be exonerated and released after having been sentenced to death in Illinois since 1977.

His release, ordered earlier the same day by the Edgar County Circuit Court, was based on new evidence that he and co-defendant Herbert Whitlock were innocent of the murder of newlyweds Karen and Dyke Rhoads, whose bodies were discovered on July 6, 1986, in their burning home in Paris, Illinois.

Both convictions rested principally on the testimony of two alcoholics, Deborah Reinbolt and Darrell Harrington, who claimed to have been present when Steidl and Whitlock repeatedly stabbed the victims and set their home afire. Reinbolt was charged with concealing the homicidal deaths and, pursuant to a plea agreement, pleaded guilty. She was sentenced to two years in prison.

The evidence against Steidl also included the testimony of a jailhouse informant, Ferlin Wells, who claimed to have heard Steidl say that, if he had known Harrington would come forward, "he would have definitely taken care of him."

After losing their state appeals, Steidl and Whitlock filed petitions for federal writs of habeas corpus. Whitlock did not prevail, but on June 17, 2003, U.S. District Court Judge Michael McCuskey found in the Steidl case that "acquittal was reasonably probable if the jury had heard all of the evidence." On the ground that Steidl's trial attorney, S. John Muller, failed to pursue exculpatory evidence, Judge McCuskey ordered the state to retry or release Steidl within 120 days.

Madigan promptly filed notice that she would appeal McCuskey's decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. The notice stopped the calendar from running in the case, but it resumed running on March 26, 2004, with Madigan's announcement that she would not pursue the appeal.

Judge McCuskey's decision was the culmination of years of work by numerous lawyers, including Michael Metnick, of Springfield; Kathryn Saltmarsh, of the Illinois Appellate Defender's Office; and Lawrence Marshall, Karen Daniel, and Jane Raley, of the Center on Wrongful Convictions. Investigator Bill Clutter of Springfield also played a major role in the case.

"I met with members of both victims families to inform them of the status of the investigation and my final decision," Madigan said. "This has been a very difficult decision, but it is the right decision based upon the evidence."

At that point, the case returned to the Edgar County Circuit Court, where the Office of the State's Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor dismissed the charges against Steidl on May 28, 2004.

Between the reinstatement of capital punishment in Illinois in 1977 and former Governor George H. Ryan's 2003 granting of clemency to all persons on death row in the state, there were 288 men and women sentenced under the law. Steidl's exoneration pushed the wrongful conviction rate among those defendants to more than 6%.

Case Chronology

July 6, 1986 - Firemen find the bodies of Karen and Dyke Rhoads in their burning home in Paris, Illinois.

September 21, 1986 - Darrell Harrington, an alcoholic with two convictions for writing bad checks, accuses Gordon R. (Randy) Steidl and Herbert R. Whitlock of the murders.

February 16, 1987 - Deborah Reinbolt, an alcoholic and drug addict, tells police she was present when Gordon R. (Randy) Steidl and Herbert R. Whitlock committed the murders; she gives police a knife with a 5-inch blade, purportedly the murder weapon.

February 19, 1987 - Paris police arrest Steidl and Whitlock.

March 10, 1987 - Edgar County grand jury returns indictments charging Steidl and Whitlock with both murders.

May 22, 1987 - Jury finds Whitlock guilty of the murder of Karen Rhoads, but acquits him of the murder of Dyke Rhoads. He is sentenced to life in prison.

July 1987 - Jury finds Steidl guilty of both murders.

August 12, 1987 - Steidl sentenced to death.

September 28, 1988 - Fourth District Illinois Appellate Court affirms Whitlock’s conviction and sentence. People v. Whitlock, 174 Ill. App. 3d 749 (1988).

November 21, 1988 - Harrington recants his trial testimony in a statement before a court reporter.

January 13, 1989 - Reinbolt recants her trial testimony in a signed affidavit.

December 1989 - Reinbolt and Harrington recant their recantations at a hearing before Judge Komada.

January 24, 1991 - Illinois Supreme Court affirms Steidl’s conviction and death sentence. People v. Steidl, 142 Ill. 2d 204 (1991).

October 25, 1995 - Without an evidentiary hearing, Judge Komada denies Steidl’s petition for post-conviction relief.

February 17-18, 1996 - Reinbolt recants her trial testimony for the second time in a four hour, videotaped statement.

February 23, 1996 - Reinbolt retracts her second recantation in an audiotaped statement to the Edgar County State’s Attorney.

December 11, 1996 - On appeal of the denial of Steidl's post-conviction petition, the Illinois Supreme Court denies Steidl's request for a new trial, but grants a new sentencing hearing on the ground that his attorney provided ineffective assistance at the sentencing phase of the trial by failing to present evidence in mitigation.

February 18, 1999 - Steidl resentenced to life in prison after prosecutors agree not to pursue the death penalty.

December 5, 2000 - Fourth District Appellate Court denies Steidl a new trial.

April 4, 2001 - Illinois Supreme Court denies the Petition for Leave to Appeal.

June 17, 2003 - Judge Michael P. McCuskey, of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois, orders a new trial for Steidl. Steidl v. Walls, 267 F. Supp. 2d 919 (2003).

March 25, 2004 - After an intensive review of the case, Attorney General Lisa Madigan declines to appeal McCuskey’s decision.

May 28, 2004 - All charges against Steidl dropped and hours later he is released from the Danville Correctitonal Center.

January 8, 2008 - All charges against Steidl's codefendent Herb Whitlock are dropped and he is released from an Illinois prison.

Comments of Rory Steidl

Read Judge McCluskey's Decision

Chicago Tribune Editorial: Pardon Randy Steidl