More weird developments in Rhoads' case 11/19/05 column
The twists and turns leading from the scene of a double-murder 20 years ago in Edgar County through the state and federal courts keep getting stranger and stranger.
One man convicted in the case and sentenced to death, Randy Steidl, has been freed and is living in Missouri. He filed suit against those who prosecuted him and is asking Gov. Rod Blagojevich for clemency based on his innocence.
But the other man convicted, Herbert Whitlock, is serving a life sentence while pursuing a so-far-futile effort to win a new trial and his freedom.
Here are the latest Twilight Zone-type developments:
[–] Edgar County Circuit Judge H. Dean Andrews this week denied without comment a defense request to reconsider a decision he made earlier this year denying Whitlock a new trial.
[–] A public relations representative for the Paris businessman identified in recent civil court hearings as a "person of interest" in the Rhoads' murders announced that his client took a polygraph examination and denied involvement in the brutal stabbing deaths of Dyke and Karen Rhoads of Paris.
"Prominent entrepreneur passes polygraph," was the headline of a news release issued by Dan Curry, a former press secretary for former U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald and former Attorney General Jim Ryan.
[–] Another embarrassing anonymous leak of confidential information from the Illinois State Police, this time a memo from a state police investigator assigned to a reinvestigation of the Rhoads' murders. In the memo, the investigator, Jeffrey Marlow, describes himself as someone who "naively wanted to play a part in the discovery of who really killed the kids" but requests reassignment because, in his opinion, neither his superiors in law enforcement nor lawyers in the state appellate prosecutor's office are interested in an honest probe of the Rhoads' case.
"The frustration level is too great for such a short life," Marlow wrote in his memo to state police Capt. Bruce Zywiec.
[–] A decision by the Illinois Attorney General's office not to intervene in the case at the circuit court level, replacing the state appellate prosecutor, for the purpose of confessing error in the Whitlock prosecution. But Barry Gross, chief deputy attorney general, said allegations of prosecutorial misconduct in the original prosecution remain "under review" as Whitlock's lawyers appeal.
Gross also said the Marlow memo is "something that is worthy of looking into" and that his office has asked state police to speak with investigator Marlow.
Judge Andrews' decision this week to again deny Whitlock a new trial did not come as a surprise. But the speed and brevity with which he did so was stunning.
After listening on Monday to defense lawyer Richard Kling, a Chicago law professor, Andrews denied the motion Tuesday without comment.
In a previous lengthy opinion, Andrews rejected defense claims, suggesting that questions about the credibility of the two alleged eyewitnesses to the killings were of little significance and downplaying defense challenges to physical evidence introduced in the case.
Andrews' findings as he sustained Whitlock's conviction were in sharp contrast to a ruling two years ago by U.S. Judge Michael McCuskey, who reviewed exactly the same evidence and overturned Steidl's conviction.
McCuskey ordered that Steidl either be released from prison or retried, and after reexamining the case, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan decided not to retry Steidl.
In his decision, McCuskey demolished physical evidence that prosecutors used to link Steidl and Whitlock to the killings. He said expert testimony produced by the defense on appeal demonstrated that the knife police said was used to kill the Rhoads could not have been the murder weapon.
Further, McCuskey ruled that Steidl's defense attorney, the late John Muller of Charleston, erred grievously when he did not call as a witness the work supervisor of the state's star witness, Debra Reinbolt, to testify that work records showed that Reinbolt was at work at the same time she told police she was drinking with Steidl and Whitlock hours before the murders.
The knife in question was turned over to police by Reinbolt, who said it had been given to her by Steidl and Whitlock.
But Judge Andrews rejected the significance of the knife testimony, although he conceded it "may not have been the knife to inflict all of the wounds." Speculating on his own, Andrews suggested there were two knives, although neither defense nor prosecution lawyers ever raised that scenario.
Further, Andrews placed great weight on testimony of Reinbolt, who said she was with Steidl and Whitlock when the killings occurred. Since the trial, Reinbolt and another purported eyewitness, Darrell Herrington, have repeatedly recanted their trial testimony and then recanted their recantations.
Nonetheless, Whitlock's lawyers now will appeal Andrews' decision while they retain hope that the attorney general's office will decide to push the appellate prosecutor's office off the case.
Meanwhile, the Illinois State Police Department is riven with discord over the case, with some command officers fighting furiously against any change in the status quo of the case, others disenchanted and distressed over its handling and still others ducking for cover so as not to be tainted by what's going on.
In the Marlow memo, which was mailed anonymously to John Baker, a Springfield lawyer who represents former state police Lt. Michale Callahan, Marlow referred to an occasion when he attempted to speak to one of his supervisors, Capt. Zywiec, about his concerns.
"As I remember well, when I first tried to discuss this case with you, you literally put (your) fingers in your ears and informed me you were better off not knowing about the case. (Master Sgt. Brian) Henn also was consistent about not wanting to be involved in the investigation," Marlow wrote Zywiec.
Marlow and fellow investigator Greg Dixon worked briefly under Callahan on the Rhoads' matter. Initially assigned to re-examine the case in response to a complaint that Steidl and Whitlock were wrongfully convicted, Callahan concluded that the evidence was insufficient to support their convictions, identified another suspect and briefly had complete backing from his commanders for a reinvestigation.
But that changed after Callahan and his superiors learned that the suspect Callahan identified was a political supporter of former Gov. George Ryan. The probe was sidetracked, and Callahan eventually transferred to patrol when he complained too much.
Eventually, Callahan retired from the state police and filed a federal civil rights lawsuit at the U.S. Court in Urbana against three superiors, alleging they retaliated against him for speaking out in the case. He won a $360,000 judgment, which the state is expected to appeal.
While the litigation continues to unfold, the suspect Callahan identified, a well-known Paris businessman who employed Karen Rhoads, is defending himself, denying any involvement in the killings and asking "those trying to seek justice in Rhoads' murders to stop trying to frame him," public relations spokesman Curry said.
Curry told reporters that the results of his client's polygraph examination will be shared with the state police, attorney general and appellate prosecutor's office.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey<@>news-gazette.com or at 351-5369.