Herb Whitlock

Erroneous testimony by incentivized witnesses helped send Herb Whitlock to prison for 21 years

In 1986, Karen and Dyke Rhoads were stabbed to death in the master bedroom of their downstate Paris home, and the house was then set afire. The following year, Gordon “Randy” Steidl and Herbert R. Whitlock were convicted of the crime at separate jury trials in Edgar County. Steidl was sentenced to death, Whitlock to life in prison.

The convictions rested primarily on the testimony of two alcoholics who testified that they were at the Rhoads’s home when the murders occurred. Deborah Rienbolt claimed she saw Steidl and Whitlock kill the couple with a knife that Whitlock had borrowed from her and returned the day after the crime; she turned the knife over to police. Rienbolt also testified that she had seen a broken lamp in the bedroom. Darrell Herrington testified that he went with Steidl and Whitlock to the Rhoads’s house, heard arguments, and saw the bodies. A jailhouse snitch, Ferlin Wells, testified that Steidl had confided, if he had thought Herrington would come forward, “he would have definitely taken care of him.”

After the trials, appellate lawyers discovered that the lamp in the victims’ bedroom that Rienbolt testified had been broken during the crime actually was broken by firemen after they extinguished the fire and that the knife Rienbolt provided could not have been the murder weapon — its blade was too short. Both Rienbolt and Herrington eventually recanted their testimony, although Rienbolt recanted her recantation and then recanted that recantation. Steidl finally won release on a federal writ of habeas corpus in 2003, and the prosecution dropped the charges against him in 2004.

Whitlock remained behind bars another three and a half years until the Illinois Appellate Court reversed his conviction, holding that exculpatory evidence had been withheld at his trial. Prosecutors dropped the charges against him in 2008.

— Rob Warden