Jim Dey: It's easy to settle, sometimes hard to collect

Five months ago, lawyers for a Paris man wrongfully convicted of murder reached an out-of-court settlement for $3.5 million with the police officers and prosecutor he alleged had framed him.

The question then — and the question now — was how much Randy Steidl could collect of that $3.5 million and from whom. So far, $2.5 million is proving hard to get.

Last month, Urbana-based U.S. Judge Harold Baker rejected a request by Steidl lawyers to order Attorney General Lisa Madigan to pay Steidl $1.65 million to compensate him for the prosecutorial misconduct of former Edgar County State's Attorney Michael McFatridge. Steidl's lawyers had 30 days to appeal Baker's decision, and that deadline expired this past week.

But Steidl's lawyer, Flint Taylor of Chicago, said he expects to shift his collection effort for the $1.65 million from federal to state court, where different legal issues would be presented from those argued in federal court before Baker.

"We thought we would try Baker first. Clearly, he wasn't receptive," said Taylor, describing the state court option as the "preferable way to go" in the wake of Baker's decision.

Steidl and his one-time co-defendant, Herbert Whitlock of Paris, both were convicted of the brutal 1986 Edgar County double murders of Dyke and Karen Rhoads. Each served lengthy prison terms before their convictions were overturned (Steidl in 2004 and Whitlock in 2008). After their release, Steidl and Whitlock filed wrongful conviction lawsuits that alleged they were not involved in the murders. They contended they were convicted only because authorities manufactured phony evidence against them and withheld evidence that showed their innocence.

Earlier this year, Whitlock settled his claims against McFatridge and state, county and local police for an undisclosed sum. Litigation involving him is over.

Steidl reached a $2.5 million settlement with the Illinois State Police in 2011. In late March, he reached an overall $3.5 million settlement with Edgar County, the city of Paris, McFatridge, Paris Police Chief Gene Ray and Paris Detective James Parrish.

The latter settlement was broken down in two categories:

— $1.5 million from the city of Paris, Chief Ray and Parrish.

— $2 million from Edgar County and McFatridge.

Ironically, none of those individuals identified as wrongdoers will pay anything toward the settlement. Any money that is paid will come from the government insurers, Paris taxpayers and state taxpayers.

The $1.5 million city settlement includes guaranteed payments of $325,000 by the Western World Insurance Group and $325,000 over a four-year period by the city of Paris.

Whether Steidl and his lawyers will collect the remaining $850,000 depends on how a federal judge rules on the question of liability by Selective Insurance Co. of South Carolina, which insured Paris from 1999 to 2008. The insurance company is disputing the claim that it is liable. If it is found not to be, Steidl is out of luck.

The second part of the settlement involves the county and McFatridge. Two county insurers agreed to pay $375,000. The remaining $1.65 million to cover McFatridge's liability depends on collecting from Madigan and state taxpayers. (Although those two sums add up to $2.025 million, the legal settlement identifies the total as $2 million.)

Madigan earlier had denied McFatridge's request that the state pay his legal fees, a position that was vindicated in a recent ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court.

Consistent with that position, Madigan's office also has denied a demand from Steidl's lawyers that her office pay the $1.65 million settlement because it has no obligation to cover damages for willful and wanton misconduct by a state prosecutor.

"...the essence of your entire case against Mr. McFatridge is that he committed misconduct by deliberately framing Mr. Steidl, not by acting negligently," Madigan deputy Brent Stratton wrote in a May 24 letter to Steidl lawyers.

Baker accepted that argument, noting that he has no authority to order state officials to make a payment they do not wish to make.

"McFatridge assigned his right to indemnification, whatever that right might be, to (Steidl). The parties could not create or embellish a right beyond what it actually was. Certainly they could not unilaterally create a liability for a nonparty by agreeing among themselves that it existed," Baker ruled.

In a related matter, Taylor said he's continuing to press Gov. Pat Quinn to make a decision on Steidl's request for a pardon based on his claim of innocence. Although the pardon request has been pending before the governor's office for roughly 10 years, there has been no response of any kind.

Noting that the facts of what happened are clear and the wrongful conviction litigation mostly settled, Taylor said he doesn't know "what could possibly be the governor's hang-up at this point."

"(The state) won't say no. (It) won't say yes," he said.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 351-5369.

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