Fallout from Rhoads murders stains the courts 11/5/05 N-G col.

Fallout from Rhoads murders stains the courts 11/5/05 N-G col.

The 1986 murders of newlyweds Dyke and Karen Rhoads and nagging questions about who did it remain a cancer on their hometown of Paris, a small town in Edgar County.
But in the legal system, where the case moved after two men were charged and convicted in 1987, that cancer has spread wildly [–] from state to the federal courts and from local police to state law enforcement agencies and beyond with no sign of abating anytime soon.
Cruel ironies abound.
One man who was convicted [–] Randy Steidl [–] was freed from prison two years ago. He has a pardon request pending before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board and a pending federal lawsuit against the numerous law enforcement agencies and police officers he contends wrongfully convicted him.
Meanwhile, the other defendant [–] Herbert Whitlock [–] is serving a life sentence even as he seeks to have his conviction overturned.
It's not just a case of defense lawyers against prosecutors. The case has turned cops against cops.
On Tuesday, retired Illinois State Police Lt. Michale Callahan of Champaign indicated he would accept a reduced judgment of $360,000 awarded to him against the state and two of his superiors, Col. Diane Carper and Capt. Steve Fermon, rather than pursue a retrial in federal court in Urbana on the issue of damages.
Callahan alleged [–] and a jury agreed [–] he was transferred from his investigative duties after he concluded that Steidl and Whitlock were wrongfully convicted and sought to reinvestigate the case.
And although it hasn't happened yet, the controversy could prompt prosecutors from the Illinois attorney general's office to shunt aside prosecutors from the state appellate prosecutor's office with the intention of confessing error in Whitlock's prosecution.
Barry Gross, the chief deputy attorney general, said his office is reviewing allegations of prosecutorial misconduct made by Richard Kling, Whitlock's lawyer, and is in the process of deciding whether to step in.
"We are looking at this very carefully," he said. "What (Kling) is seeking for us to do is rather dramatic."
The attorney general's office already has reviewed this case once, conducting its own inquiry before deciding that it would not retry Steidl after his conviction was overturned in 2003 by U.S. Judge Michael McCuskey.
Even though the attorney general's office announced it would not retry Steidl, a decision that led to his release, state appellate prosecutor Ed Parkinson stated at Steidl's recent pardon hearing that Steidl remains a suspect and that authorities are reinvestigating the case with the goal of pursuing a retrial.
But absent some astounding evidentiary discovery, chances of a retrial are minuscule for two reasons:
[–] There's no credible eyewitness or physical evidence linking Steidl to the murders.
[–] The appellate prosecutor's office answers to the attorney general, which isn't likely to approve a retrial it already has rejected.
"(The appellate prosecutor) is investigating. Whatever they decide to do would be subject to our review," said Gross.
One of the many battles in this confusing morass of litigation and accusation came close to ending this week when lawyers for Callahan and the Illinois State Police discussed settling their dispute.
"Unfortunately, we were unable to resolve it," said Callahan's Springfield lawyer John Baker, who otherwise declined to comment.
But a more talkative Callahan said he rejected the state's offer to settle because it contained a number of objectionable conditions.
"They wanted me to accept a gag order, take the payments over five years and write a letter saying Carper and Fermon were innocent," he said. "Of course, I said no."
Callahan noted that U.S. Judge Harold Baker reduced the actual and punitive damages he was awarded from $682,300 to $360,000, mostly by reducing punitive damages to $100,000 against Fermon and $50,000 against Carper. Judge Baker offered Callahan a second trial on the issue of damages, but Callahan said he decided he didn't want to put his witnesses, including former state police associates he said had been subject to intimidation by their superiors, through another trial and that he had no reason to think that a large punitive damage award wouldn't be reduced a second time.
Besides, he said, "I didn't want an issue of money to circumvent the real issue here."
And the real issue, he said, is the wrongful convictions of Steidl and Whitlock and the failure so far for anyone in authority to own up to what happened and correct a gross injustice.
"They railroaded those two guys into prison [SR]19 years ago. (They) still are attempting to cover up instead of searching for the truth," Callahan said.
When he was investigating the Rhoads murder, Callahan identified a so-called "person of interest," a Paris businessman, as a possible suspect. However, after initially approving creation of a multiagency task force to reinvestigate the case and focus on the "person of interest," Callahan's superiors stopped the probe.
In sidetracking the investigation, according to trial testimony, Carper, who indicated she was getting pressure from above, told numerous subordinates that the case was "too politically sensitive" because the "person of interest" was a major campaign donor to then-Gov. George Ryan.
Additional fallout from the jury's verdict in the Callahan lawsuit are the possible dismissals of his former superiors, Carper and Fermon. Illinois law requires the immediate dismissal of state supervisory personnel found to have violated the civil rights of employees, in this case Callahan's First Amendment right to free speech. But so far Larry Trent, director of the state police, has refused to comply with the statutory mandate and criticized the jury's verdict, vowing that it would be overturned on appeal.
While the state is expected to appeal the Callahan verdict, lawyers for Steidl and Whitlock are pursuing separate issues.
Michael Metnick, Steidl's Springfield lawyer, said the Prisoner Review Board continued its pardon hearing until February, when it expects to hear what steps, if any, appellate prosecutors will take regarding Steidl.
Steidl's federal lawsuit against law enforcement has been assigned to Judge Baker and is in the early motion stages.
Meanwhile, Whitlock's lawyer, Kling, has asked Edgar County Circuit Judge H. Dean Andrews to reconsider his June decision denying Whitlock's request to throw out his conviction. Although a Nov. 14 hearing is scheduled, Kling may seek another continuance if the attorney general's office still is undecided about whether to replace lawyers from the appellate prosecutor's office.
@Tagline:Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by e-mail at jdey<@>news-gazette.com or at 351-5369.

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