On May 28, 2004, after 17 years, three months and three weeks of wrongful imprisonment – Randy Steidl became the 18th person to be freed because of a wrongful conviction after serving time on death row in an Illinois state prison. He was the 115th person in this nation to be exonerated from death row.
Steidl now spends his time and energy traveling the country speaking to others about wrongful convictions and the possibility of executing an innocent person. He was on the campus of Northeastern Junior College to share his compelling story on Tuesday, September 21st at 7 p.m. He appeared before a standing room only crowd in the Tennant Art Gallery in Hays Student Center. His talk was free and open to the public and was jointly sponsored by the college’s residence life and criminal justic programs. An estimated 120 students and community members came to hear him speak.
Steidl was an average, hard-working guy from a small farming community in southern Illinois. When questioned about the 1986 murders of newlyweds Dyke and Karen Rhoads, Randy assumed the police were questioning many people in the area. He did not know either of the victims but cooperated with the police and gave a corroborated alibi for the night of the murders. It was a shock when he and a friend were arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death within 90 days.
Admittedly, Steidl had poor representation. There was no DNA evidence against him, but there were witnesses who fabricated testimony against him due to police misconduct. With everything stacked against him, he ended up spending 12 years on death row trying to prove his innocence. Through the involvement of Center for Wrongful Convictions, a new sentencing hearing resulted in a sentence of life without parole in 1999. And, the Center continued its fight for Randy’s freedom for almost five more years.
According to promotional information submitted to NJC by Steidl’s booking agency, an investigation by Illinois State police proved that local law enforcement and prosecutors had framed Steidl and co-defendant Herbert Whitlock. The real person responsible for the murders was Karen Rhoads’ employer, a man whose major campaign contributions to the governor’s office made this case “too politically sensitive.” The governor ordered the investigation against him to cease.
In 2003, federal judge Michael McCuskey overturned Randy’s conviction and ordered a new trial, stating that if the proper evidence had been originally investigated and presented it was “reasonably probable” that Randy would have been acquitted by the jury. The state re- investigated the case, tested DNA evidence, and found no link to Randy.
Since 2004, Steidl has been adjusting to his new life and working in the manufacturing business. He has testified in a number of states about his experience and is a strong witness against capital punishment. When Governor Bill Richardson, a longtime proponent of the death penalty, signed legislation repealing New Mexico’s death penalty on March 18, 2009, he spoke at length about Steidl’s testimony before the state senate as being one of his primary reasons for his decision to sign the bill.
Steidl seeks to become more active in the movement against the death penalty as he believes that “one innocent life lost by execution is not worth ten guilty persons being executed.” During his talk, he encouraged students to really consider what the death penalty means and how in his opinion, life without parole is a much tougher sentence. “So many were involved with me getting my freedom back. It was the media and college journalism classes and others that took an interest in my plight and helped me prove that I was an innocent man. Remember that and make sure that when it comes to this issue, you have a voice. ”