Chicago Tribune

Bid for new trial in '86 murders denied by judge
By Hal Dardick; Chicago Tribune
June 24, 2005

A circuit court judge Thursday denied a new trial for a Downstate man who maintains his innocence after serving 18 years of a life sentence for the murder of a newlywed couple.

The decision in the case of Herb Whitlock, 59, came nearly 13 months after his onetime co-defendant, Gordon "Randy" Steidl, was set free when a federal judge granted him a new trial and prosecutors dropped charges. Steidl spent 12 of his 17 years behind bars on Death Row.

Whitlock, who was tried separately by a jury that heard testimony from the same two key witnesses, was convicted of killing Karen Rhoads but not her husband. Steidl, who had a different defense attorney than Whitlock, was convicted of both murders.

After the convictions, new defense attorneys attacked the credibility of the two key witnesses and the reliability of evidence about the knife identified as the murder weapon at trial.

But Edgar County Judge H. Dean Andrews--who presides in Paris, Ill., where Karen and Dyke Rhoads were stabbed to death in 1986 before their home was set on fire--came to a different opinion in Whitlock's case than did the federal judge in Steidl's.

Andrews' ruling, which was 72 pages long, will be appealed, but it will likely take more than a year to get a decision, said Susana Ortiz, one of Whitlock's attorneys.

Ortiz and co-counsel Richard Kling were devastated by--and angry about--the ruling.

"I don't understand how the judge--given the uncontradicted, unrebutted evidence and his decision--can sleep at night," Kling said.

David Rands, the prosecutor in the case, said: "I think the judge did a very thorough job of weighing all of the evidence, and that's brought out in this very detailed and lengthy opinion he rendered, and I think it's the appropriate ruling, obviously."

In four days of hearings in March and April, Kling and Ortiz argued that former Edgar County State's Atty. Michael McFatridge failed to turn over key evidence and encouraged one witness to lie on the stand. McFatridge has denied the allegations but did not testify.

Rands, with the appellate prosecutor's office, called no witnesses. He argued Whitlock had exhausted his legal opportunities and that the defense failed to prove inadequate representation by Whitlock's attorney or misconduct by McFatridge.

The judge dismissed claims that McFatridge encouraged lying on the stand. "The defendant has failed to prove that the conviction was obtained through the use of perjured testimony or tainted with perjured testimony," he wrote.

In a videotaped statement, the other key witness, Debra Rienbolt, told Illinois Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan's office that she identified a broken object in the Rhoads home as a vase, not a lamp, only to be coached during mock trials staged by prosecutors to say it was a lamp.

"Whether the piece seen by Rienbolt was a piece of a lamp or a piece of a vase is immaterial to the issue of who killed Karen Rhoads," Andrews wrote. "Rienbolt still says that Whitlock killed Karen, and Rienbolt participated in the murder."

Kling and Ortiz also said Ronald Tulin, Whitlock's trial attorney in 1987, failed to provide adequate representation.

Tulin testified he should have called an expert, who would have said a knife identified by Rienbolt as the murder weapon could not have caused some of the wounds. That fact was stressed by the federal judge who ordered a new trial in Steidl's case, but Andrews suggested a knife found in the kitchen could have caused the wounds.

Tulin also said he erred when he failed to question why the lamp that Rienbolt said was broken before the Rhoads home was set on fire had no soot on its interior.

Yet Andrews dismissed that argument by Tulin, even though the federal judge who ordered Steidl's new trial found an identical argument convincing. "If the lamp were situated with the broken side down, the broken interior surface would not have been exposed to soot," Andrews wrote, concluding Tulin "provided effective representation for the defendant at trial."

Andrews also determined that the issues raised by Whitlock's attorneys during the hearing were either argued or could have been in previous petitions to state and federal appellate courts, both of which also denied new trials in his case.

During the hearing before Andrews, former Illinois State Police Lt. Michale Callahan, who in 2000 was ordered to take another look at the Rhoads homicides, testified he ultimately concluded Steidl and Whitlock were innocent.

At the conclusion of a federal civil trial about six weeks after Callahan testified before Andrews, a jury awarded nearly $700,000 to Callahan after determining two of his Illinois State Police superiors thwarted his attempt to reopen the case, because it was too politically sensitive.

Callahan was transferred from investigations to a post overseeing traffic enforcement in retaliation for his efforts to pursue the case, the jury found.

"It's just obvious that you are not going to get justice down in Edgar County," Callahan said, referring to Andrews' ruling. "You are going to have to have the federal government step in, not just in my case, but also on Steidl and Whitlock."

The hearing evidence presented to Andrews included thousands of pages of documents, among them the materials considered by U.S. District Judge Michael McCuskey, who in June 2003 ordered Steidl's new trial. McCuskey determined "acquittal was reasonably probable if the jury had heard all the evidence."

After McCuskey's ruling, Madigan conducted an extensive investigation and decided not to appeal. "Madigan's office found that information favoring the defense was never disclosed," her office stated in March 2004.

Defense attorney Michael Metnick, who won Steidl's freedom and has since filed a federal civil suit on Steidl's behalf, said Whitlock's case was even stronger than Steidl's.

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