April 19, 2012

Panel to discuss wrongful murder convictions

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- One of Illinois’ recent high-profile wrongful murder convictions -- and continuing concerns with the state’s legal system -- will be the focus of a discussion next week at the Southern Illinois University School of Law.

Gordon (Randy) Steidl, who spent 12 of his 17 years in prison on Death Row before winning release for a 1986 double murder he did not commit, is part of a panel for the 2012 Hiram H. Lesar Distinguished Lecture.  Along with Steidl, who was released from prison in May 2004, Michale Callahan, a retired Illinois State Police lieutenant who tried to reopen the murder investigation in the face of backlash from superiors, and John Hanlon, who was Steidl’s counsel on direct appeal and assisted in post-conviction proceedings, will discuss the case, and Illinois’ continuing criminal justice system issues.

The presentation, “Advocates For the Innocent,” is at 5 p.m., Monday, April 23, in the law school auditorium. The lecture is free and open to the public.  This is the 19th Lesar Lecture, which dates back to 1992, and honors the SIU School of Law’s founding dean.

Media Advisory

Reporters, photographers and camera crews are welcome to cover the lecture. To make arrangements for interviews or for more information on the lecture, contact Alicia Ruiz, the law school’s director of communications and outreach, at 618/453-8700.            

Hanlon, the legal director of the Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois Springfield, represented four of 20 wrongfully convicted people released from Illinois’ death row while with the Illinois State Appellate Defender’s office. Since fall 2010, students at the law school have been assisting the Illinois Innocence Project in efforts to assist wrongfully convicted prisoners prove their innocence, and reform the state’s criminal justice system.

“We have a unique opportunity in this year’s Lesar Lecture to see how difficult it is to exonerate an innocent man and how easy it is to convict one,” said Christopher W. Behan, an assistant professor at the law school who, along with Professor William A. Schroeder, oversee the students’ involvement.

Currently, 11 law school students are working with the Illinois Innocence Project, Hanlon said.  The law school earlier this month received a “Defenders of the Innocent” award from the organization during a ceremony in Springfield.

Steidl and a second defendant, Herb Whitlock, were found guilty in 1987 in the stabbing deaths of newlyweds Dyke and Karen Rhoads in their Paris home.  Steidl received the death penalty for both murders; Whitlock received life in prison for Karen Rhoads’ death.

Hanlon began working on Steidl’s case in 1989, and co-wrote the petition for post-conviction relief after the Illinois Supreme Court set an execution date. Students from Northwestern University’s Center for Wrongful Convictions worked on Steidl’s case, and in 2003, a federal judge ruled that an acquittal was probable if a jury heard all the evidence.  He ordered Steidl be retried within 120 days or released.  Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan ultimately decided to not pursue an appeal, and appellate prosecutors dismissed all charges against Steidl in May 2004.

In 2003, then-Gov. George H. Ryan granted clemency to all Death Row inmates in Illinois, and in March 2011, Gov. Pat Quinn abolished the state’s death penalty.

Behan said Steidl recently negotiated a $2.5 million settlement with the Illinois State Police, but Steidl has yet to receive a pardon from the governor.

The Illinois Innocence Project was involved with presenting evidence that led to an appellate court decision granting Whitlock’s release from prison in January 2008.

Reports state that Callahan has said he tried to reopen the Rhoads’ murder case and his superiors told him it was “too politically sensitive.”  Callahan retired from the state police in 2005, and will discuss his attempts to reopen the investigation, Hanlon said.  Callahan earned “The Edmund Burke Award from the National Lawyers Association,” in 2006, and the 2011 “Defenders of the Innocent” award from the Illinois Innocence Project.

The lecture will show how Steidl, Callahan and Hanlon’s lives have become “inextricably linked because of their efforts to end an injustice,” Behan said.

“It took only a few months to convict Randy Steidl of a crime he didn’t commit, but the efforts to fully exonerate him by means of a pardon continue,” Behan said.  “Without the sacrifice, dedication and professionalism of investigators like Michale Callahan and the work of attorneys like John Hanlon, Steidl might very well have been executed years ago or continue to be imprisoned for a crime he did not commit.”

In addition to the Whitlock case, the Illinois Innocence Project has played a substantial role in the exoneration of others wrongfully convicted, including Keith Harris and Julie Rea Harper.  The organization reviews cases that include murder, sexual assaults and armed violence.

“Those are the cases that draw the largest sentences and those are the cases where there is a lot of pressure on police to solve them.  Sometimes that pressure can lead to mistakes,” Hanlon said.

Noting Illinois’ “horrible” track record of wrongful convictions, Hanlon said it is a mistake to believe that innocent people are not wrongly convicted.

“If you think otherwise, you are saying the criminal justice system is the only one where mistakes are not made,” he said.

A recent conference on innocence issues points to reforms that Illinois could enact. Current state law requires videotape interrogations only in homicide investigations.  In China, however, a country known for human rights issues, laws there require videotaped interrogations in all cases where a minimum prison sentence of 10 years is possible, Hanlon said.

Hanlon also suggests a different circuit court judge hear evidence in post-conviction petitions once a defendant is found guilty.  Typically the trial judge hears these petitions, which convicted people use to bring forth evidence not allowed or pursued at a trial.

Hanlon hopes people realize that Steidl and Callahan for different, but related reasons, “are two wonderful, strong and very dignified men.”

Hanlon said the work by SIU law school students is “irreplaceable and invaluable.” 

“They are an inspiration to all of us,” he said.  “They are young, they are eager, and they are learning.”

It was the initial work and pursuit by SIU law school students that resulted in the Illinois Prisoner Review Board reviewing a clemency petition for Grover Thompson.  Thompson, who died in prison in 1996, was serving a 40-year sentence for attempted murder in the 1981 stabbing of an elderly Mount Vernon woman.  Convicted serial killer Timothy Krajcir later confessed to the crime.

“They have done fantastic work in other cases as well, and we are confident we are going to see good results in the near future,” Hanlon said.