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Witness to Innocence: Wrongful Execution and Exoneration

Steidl spent twelve years on Illinois’ death row, awaiting execution by lethal injection and five more years as an LWOP (Life Without Parole) prisoner before he was finally exonerated of the horrendous crime he did not commit.

(Photo: Prisoner hands via Shutterstock)

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Randy Steidl was pissed off. And when he was not pissed off, he was enraged. Pissed off and enraged at what the criminal “justice” system was doing to him. But for his anger, he thinks he might have gone insane. Steidl spent twelve years on Illinois’ death row, awaiting execution by lethal injection and five more years as an LWOP (Life Without Parole) prisoner before he was finally exonerated of the horrendous crime he did not commit.

Steidl’s ordeal began in 1977 when he was arrested for stabbing and burning the bodies of two newlyweds, Karen and Dyke Rhoads. Within a mere 90 days, he found himself on death row, thanks to the perjury of two drunks, a prison stool pigeon and the ineptitude of a lawyer who failed to present evidence to the jury that would have exculpated Steidl.

In the ensuing years, the case, like most death penalty cases, crept its way through state and then federal court. After twelve years, a state appeals court judge reduced Steidl’s sentence to LWOP – which infuriated him even more than the executioner’s needle. In an even, unyielding voice Steidl condemned a system that “preys on the poor and on people of color,” on a “mentality that cops and prosecutors can do anything they want,” where “bar association disciplinary committees are good ole boy clubs.”

Then came the break. Federal Judge Michael McCuskey overturned Steidl’s conviction and ordered the state to try him anew. This opened up a new investigation that completely cleared Steidl, and the state decided not to go through the charade of another trial.

Thanks to pro bono lawyers and exposure by the Illinois Times – as well as unflagging support from his mother and brother – Steidl walked out of prison after 17 years, but he still bore the stigma of criminality. Yet more years would pass before Steidl was fully exonerated and his slate wiped clean.

How many men (and women) were as fortunate as Steidl to escape the death gurney … sometimes by a matter of minutes? I spoke with an invaluable source for this series of articles, Richard C. Dieter JD, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Dieter told me that, since capital punishment resumed with the Furman case, there have been 140 confirmed exonerations of death row inmates. Steidl told me sarcastically that pre-Furman executions, when people were killed at the rate of three or four a week in some states, don’t count.

What about the most troubling question: How many innocent people has America sent to their death? We are fairly certain of four and a likely fifth only. Steve Hall, the director of the Texas anti-death penalty group StandDown, told me the names: Ruben Cantu, Texas; Carlos DeLuna, Texas; Todd Willingham, Texas; Larry Griffen, Missouri; and, very likely, Gary Graham, Texas. Hall and Steidl believe the body count is much higher; Steidl estimates it’s about 10 percent of those executed. If you take the ratio of executions to proven exonerations, the figure jumps to an astounding 28 percent. Dieter, no friend of the death penalty, believes that there have been very few wrongful executions and that there have only been a few on top of the proven four (or five, counting Graham).

What evidence there is suggests that Steidl’s estimate is pretty close to the truth. Factors that lead to such a result include the lack of adequate defense attorneys or support systems of families and friends to look out for their interests experienced by many defendants in capital cases. Steidl points out that many states allow a mere $5,000 to cover all defense costs, even though a good attorney might have to hire a private investigator and bring in expert witnesses. There are a couple of pro bono, university-based death penalty clinics around the country, but they can’t handle the enormous case load: justice boils down to triage. As for the rest, they are dependent upon court-appointed lawyers, many of whom can’t earn their living any other way. The lore of criminal “justice” – including capital cases – is replete with anecdotes about lawyers turning up drunk, sleeping through the trial or failing to file critical motions on time. These anecdotes of legal incompetence are supported by a study by Emily M. West, director of research for the Innocence Project. West did not return several calls to discuss her study, but the title, “Court Findings of Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claims in Post-Conviction Appeals Among the First 255 DNA Exoneration Cases” speaks for itself. The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, which presumably entitles defendants to an adequate defense, is a farce in everyday legal practice – including capital cases.

These qualitative data are supported by a new study from the Urban Institute. The study analyzed the results of new DNA testing of old physical evidence from 634 rape and murder cases that took place in Virginia between 1973 and1987. Its conclusions: between 8 and 15 percent of convicted offenders were innocent, compared to less rigorous guesstimates of 3 percent. Since Virginia is second only to Texas in executions, Steidl is probably just about right.

You would think that the state legislature would go out of its way to pronounce an exonerated person innocent, and settle a generous sum of cash on him. That’s not exactly the way it works. As Steidl puts it, “There are no jobs for a 60 year old ex con who happens to be innocent.”

Steidl was lucky. He linked up with a group of other exonerated death row inmates, who call themselves collectively the Witness to Innocence. He began to speak out about exoneration and against the death penalty in the Illinois area and, eventually, he became Witness to Innocence’s board chair. Finally, Steidl took the big step from death row to the corridors of power when he played a major role in abolishing the death penalty in Illinois.

Steidl suspects that his ordeal left him with post-traumatic stress disorder and he acknowledges taking a drink every now and then to dampen his symptoms, but he’s tough and he’s a survivor. Witness to Innocence directed me to quite a different man who nearly died without a lethal injection. Like Steidl, he was innocent of his alleged capital offense and like Steidl he was eventually exonerated – but unlike Steidl, Paul House began to develop the symptoms, notably muscular weakness, of multiple sclerosis in his tenth year on death row. The prison doctor claimed he did not know how to treat MS and did nothing. Paul’s mother brought in a specialist to enlighten the prison doctor on treating MS – but still the latter would do nothing until Paul was so crippled that he was confined to bed … at which point the prison doctor gave him aspirin and Tylenol PM!

Today, Paul is back at home, having been exonerated by a federal judge, but he is confined to a wheelchair and must take injections of interferon for his MS. As with Steidl, a miscarriage of justice took the best years of his life. The evidence is clearer that Steidl was framed by the cops, but in both instances, the prosecution fought tooth and nail to prevent exoneration; the system would sooner do anything than admit to a breakdown of justice.

Steidl’s waking nightmare was painfully typical of exoneration cases. In Steidl’s instance, he was framed by the local cops – with the complicity of the Illinois State Police – with fabricated evidence. Many other exonorees are fingered by “witnesses” who have been intimidated by the cops; often they are drug dealers or other small-time criminals whose cases will be dropped in exchange for their testimony. The prosecutor’s office almost invariably knows a man is innocent, but they would rather see him executed than acknowledge that the system is rotten to the core. The same veil of silence applies to state appellate court systems. But when death penalty cases reach the federal bench, there is a reasonable chance of exoneration or a new trial.

Unfortunately, as Steidl pointed out, many death row inmates lack access to a competent lawyer. True, many lawyers take capital cases pro bono and there are death penalty “clinics” at Northwestern University and the University of Miami, but innocent men and women still slip through the cracks. We don’t know how many cells on death rows across the country are occupied by innocent men and women. Steidl knows that the death penalty is not going to go away tomorrow, and in the meantime, we need truly independent panels to review the evidence in capital cases. But in the long run, we must not lose sight of the definitive goal: to abolish the death penalty.

Special thanks to Mr. Randy Steidl and Mrs. Joyce House for sharing their time and painful ordeals with me; to Kathy Sillman, Witness to Innocence, for her invaluable help with interviews; and to Michael J. Tria for essential help with the research on this article.

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