The Associated Press
May 28, 2004, 3:49 PM CDT
DANVILLE, Ill. -- After 17 years behind bars, including a dozen on death row, Gordon Randall Steidl walked out of an Illinois prison a free man Friday, nearly a year after a federal judge ruled that his conviction for killing two people was faulty.
"I'm laying this cross down today,'' Steidl said after leaving Danville Correctional Center. "I'm not carrying it any more.''
Steidl is the 18th person since Illinois reinstated the death penalty in 1977 to be freed because of a wrongful conviction after serving time on Illinois' death row. Steidl has maintained his innocence, but prosecutors say he is still a suspect in the 1986 deaths of newlyweds Dyke and Karen Rhoads of Paris and that he could be charged again.
Steidl left the prison escorted by his wife of nine months, Patty, his mother, Bobbie, and his brother, Rory.
"The first thing I noticed was the air is much sweeter on this side of the fence,'' Steidl said. He thanked his lawyers, his family and "especially my mother.''
"She kept me going, because of her strength,'' he said. "We told each other there was going to come a day, and this day has come.''
Steidl, 52, said he planned to have a quiet family dinner Friday and that he would accompany his brother to the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday. Then, he said, he would begin looking for work.
"I need to find a job,'' he said. "Wherever I can find a job is where I'm going to go.''
Steidl, who goes by Randy, said he would look for work in construction or investigations but had no plans to return to Paris, where the Rhoadses were stabbed to death on July 6, 1986, before their home was set ablaze.
Steidl was convicted eleven months later and sentenced to death, but the death sentence was commuted to life in prison without parole in 1999 after a judge found that Steidl's trial attorney had not adequately prepared for the sentencing hearing.
It would be five more years before U.S. District Judge Michael McCuskey ruled it was "reasonably probable'' that a jury would have acquitted Steidl had his defense attorney done more to challenge the state's case.
Since Steidl's conviction, the prosecution witness who said she saw Steidl killing the couple has recanted, and state authorities determined police botched the initial investigation.
The attorney general's office decided in March not to appeal McCuskey's order, beginning a 120-day countdown for prosecutors to bring Steidl to trial again or release him. The time to mount a prosecution was just too short because of the complexity of the case, said David Rands of the state's appellate prosecutors office.
But Rands said the Rhoads murder case is still open and Steidl remains a suspect.
Dyke Rhoads' brother and sister issued a statement Friday saying they also felt the initial investigation had been mishandled.
"Our feelings have always been that the prosecutor was more interested in a conviction than the truth,'' wrote Tony Rhoads and Andrea Trapp. "We're still waiting for justice.''
Steidl said he also hoped the truth would eventually come out. "The victims' families are owed that, and hopefully that will happen,'' he said.
Steidl has been at the medium-security Danville Correctional Center the past two years but spent most of his time at the maximum-security Menard Correctional Center in southern Illinois.
Another man, Herbert Whitlock, was also convicted of killing Karen Rhoads and is serving a life sentence. He, too, has maintained his innocence, and attorney Richard Kling said he was working on an appeal.
"I'm hoping I can do something for him,'' Steidl said. "They used the same perjured testimony against him that they used against me.''
Just before leaving office in January 2003, Gov. George Ryan commuted the death sentences of 167 inmates to life in prison and pardoned four others, declaring the state's capital justice system "haunted by the demon of error.''
Three years earlier he halted all executions in Illinois over fears that a flawed system had led to the wrongful convictions of 13 death row inmates.
Since then, the state has given the Supreme Court greater power to throw out unjust verdicts, offered defendants more access to evidence and barred the death penalty in cases that depend on a single witness. But Gov. Rod Blagojevich has kept the moratorium in place, saying he wants to see how the changes work before allowing executions to resume.