Former Paris man awaits freedom

Former Paris man awaits freedom

DANVILLE – A former Paris man who has spent 18 years in prison for a double murder is expected to be released Friday from the Danville Correctional Center.

Gordon "Randy" Steidl is expected to be freed after a judge signs an order dismissing charges against him, according to Steidl's attorney, Michael Metnick of Springfield.

"We've been in contact with the special prosecutor's office," Metnick said in a phone interview Wednesday. "A judge is going to sign an order dismissing the case against Randy on the state's motion. The order will be presented to the institution in Danville late Friday morning, and we expect Randy to be immediately released."

Steidl, 52, was convicted in 1987 for the July 6, 1986, murders of a newlywed couple, Dyke and Karen Rhodes, then 28 and 26 years old, respectively.

Also convicted in the murder of Mrs. Rhodes in a separate trial was Herbert Whitlock, 58. That jury acquitted Whitlock of the murder of Mr. Rhodes. Whitlock is serving a life sentence at the state prison in Menard.

Both Steidl and Whitlock have maintained their innocence all along.

Metnick said Steidl was on death row for seven years. In 1998, Steidl's conviction was upheld, but his death sentence was vacated and Steidl was resentenced to life in prison.

A year ago, U.S. District Judge Michael McCuskey vacated Steidl's conviction, ordering the state to retry him or release him within 120 days. But that order was stayed, pending an appeal by the state. In March, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan announced that her office would not appeal McCuskey's order, leaving a decision on whether to retry the case with the state appellate prosecutors.

The federal judge concluded that Steidl's trial defense was ineffective, that his attorney should have presented forensic evidence that a knife presented by a key prosecution witness, Deborah Rienbolt, who claimed to be an eyewitness to the murders, was not the murder weapon because it did not match the fatal wounds found on the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Rhodes.

Testimony Rienbolt gave about a broken lamp in the apartment also was contrary to the facts, according to McCuskey, and efforts to refute her testimony had a "reasonable probability" of a different outcome in the case.

Rienbolt twice recanted her testimony, but when called to testify under oath, she twice said her trial statements were true.

"Everything that Deborah Rienbolt said to show her involvement in this has been rebutted by the forensic evidence," Metnick said. "Everything Deborah Rienbolt has said in her recantation has been supported by the forensic evidence and other witnesses. To me, that is very significant. That wasn't lost on Judge McCuskey."

A team of Northwestern University journalism students who reviewed Illinois death penalty cases also found many problems with the evidence used against Steidl and Whitlock. A federal lawsuit filed in September 2003 by a former state police investigations supervisor, Lt. Michale Callahan, also suggested flaws in the case.

Callahan claims in his suit that the investigation into the Rhodes murders was reopened in 2000; after a thorough review of the evidence, he concluded that there was strong reason to believe both Steidl and Whitlock were innocent and that they had not participated in the murders. The suit also claims that after he spoke out about the case, Callahan was relieved of many of his official duties and reassigned. He is claiming his First Amendment rights were violated.

Metnick said the Steidl case has typified many of the problems in wrongful conviction cases: a horrendous crime, no physical evidence in the case, and unreliable eyewitness accounts that were recanted and repudiated. He said the case, like many others, also involved a defense attorney, who initially represented Steidl and was inexperienced and unprepared to give his client a proper defense.

Steidl's family is anticipating his impending release from prison, Metnick said. Steidl's mother and aunt have attended every hearing in his case, and his brother, a decorated Illinois State Police sergeant, Rory, has been very supportive, he said.

"This has been such a long journey that has seen such incredible highs and such incredible lows," Metnick said. "Randy's arrest reminded me of the line from the classic movie, Casablanca: 'Round up the usual suspects.'"

You can reach Steve Bauer at (217) 351-5318 or via e-mail at sbauer@news-gazette.com.

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