Chicago Tribune

Madigan passes test by diligently reviewing case
Eric Zorn, Columnist, Chicago Tribune
October 21, 2003

One of the strangest cases in the Illinois criminal justice system recently has gotten even stranger.

Michale Callahan, the Illinois State Police lieutenant who was assigned in 2000 to reinvestigate the 1986 murders of newlyweds Dyke and Karen Rhoads in downstate Paris, has sued three state police officials in federal court. His complaint alleges that the officials demoted him in part for concluding that earlier state police investigations had blown the Rhoads case and helped put the wrong men in prison.

And, in a lions/lambs moment I never thought I'd see, defense attorneys are praising their traditional foe, the Illinois attorney general, even though the AG's office has so far refused to yield to defense claims that support Callahan's conclusion.

Meanwhile, the 17-year-old case now seems to hinge on a long-shot DNA analysis of assorted hairs found at the scene.

The couple were stabbed to death in the bedroom of their home in the middle of the night for unknown reasons. Prosecutors convicted two local barflies, Herb Whitlock and his friend Gordon "Randy" Steidl, solely on the word of two other local barflies whose astonishing accounts of separately having witnessed the butchery have changed many times over the years.

Steidl and Whitlock are serving sentences of life without parole.

The case against them was outrageously shabby, as I've detailed in periodic columns dating back five years, as the CBS newsmagazine "48 Hours" showed the nation three years ago and as Callahan told top state police brass in a December 2002 meeting, according to his complaint.

How shabby? "Acquittal was reasonably probable if the jury had heard all of the evidence," ruled U.S. District Judge Michael McCuskey in June when ordering a new trial for Steidl.

So shabby that if Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan doesn't successfully appeal McCuskey's order for a new trial, Edgar County prosecutors will almost certainly have to drop charges against Steidl and set him free.

Callahan's suit against state police deputy director of operations Charles Brueggemann, Lt. Col. Diane Carper and Capt. Steven Fermon alleges that during the week of McCuskey's ruling, Callahan was "relieved of his prestigious investigation duties and assigned to work a much less prestigious position" because of the doubts and related concerns he was voicing about the Rhoads case.

State police officials would not comment on the suit, which also alleges that Callahan uncovered "strong evidence to link another individual to the murder," but does not cite the evidence or name the person.

Defense attorneys for Steidl and Whitlock have expressed astonishment at the seriousness with which Madigan has been reviewing the case, which I've contended is the first major test of her lofty campaign rhetoric.

Instead of reflexively fighting to uphold the conviction, or yielding quickly to pressure not to appeal McCuskey's ruling, Madigan mounted a diligent review of the evidence.

She not only assigned to the case her deputy for criminal justice, Ellen Mandeltort, and her solicitor general, Gary Feinerman, she also studied the fine points of the evidence herself.

"It's absolutely startling how thorough they've been and how well they know the facts," said Springfield attorney Michael Metnick, who has long represented Steidl on appeal. "I think of when I tried to get [former Democratic Atty. Gen.] Roland Burris or [former Republican Atty. Gen.] Jim Ryan to take an objective look at a case. They didn't want to go near the issue of innocence."

Madigan recently filed notice to appeal McCuskey's ruling, but that filing was a formality designed to give her office more time to examine the case and perform DNA testing.

"We have no objection to [Madigan] being careful," said Metnick, who added that he has great confidence that the DNA evidence will not link Steidl or Whitlock to the scene.

Both parties say that Madigan has not promised to drop the appeal if the DNA evidence points elsewhere, but the bet here is that she won't go forward without some sort of new smoking gun.

Even if she does decide to fight to preserve the original trial verdict without DNA backup, no one can complain that Madigan didn't take seriously her responsibility here to seek justice.

That first test? She's already passed.

Police/Prosecutor Misconduct
Innocent Imprisoned
Truth in Justice