Chicago Tribune

Inmate granted retrial

Man convicted of 1986 slaying is serving life term
By Hal Dardick
Tribune staff reporter
September 7, 2007

Herb Whitlock
Herb Whitlock

A man serving a life sentence in the slayings of a newlywed couple in Downstate Paris has been granted a new trial, possibly setting the stage for his release after more than 20 years behind bars, attorneys in the case said Thursday.

Defense attorney Richard Kling was notified Thursday of a 53-page decision by the 4th District Illinois Appellate Court. Kling has not read the decision, he said, but was told it was unanimous in granting a new trial for Herb Whitlock, who has steadfastly maintained his innocence in the July 1986 stabbing deaths of Karen and Dyke Rhoads. He was not convicted in the death of Dyke Rhoads.
Kling said he expected the decision to be available Friday.

David Rands, a special prosecutor for the appellate prosecutor's office, confirmed his office had received the decision. He had not read it yet.

Kling has long sought a new trial and Whitlock's release. A federal court order for a new trial led to the May 2004 release of Gordon "Randy" Steidl, who had been sentenced to death after a separate trial for the same crime on much of the same evidence.

Special Prosecutor Ed Parkinson of the appellate prosecutor's office said he could not comment until he reads the decision.

"I'm anxious to see the opinion," he added. "There were separate trials, and there were different witnesses at his trial. There were two witnesses who said Whitlock made incriminating statements."

Defense attorneys have dismissed the alleged statements by the two witnesses as bar talk that only included details from the rumor mill in the small town of Paris. They also note the two main witnesses, who were the same at each trial, have repeatedly changed their stories about the crime over the years. One of those witnesses recently died.

In 2000, former Illinois State Police Lt. Michale Callahan was assigned to take another look at the Rhoads murders and concluded that Steidl and Whitlock were innocent. He has since won a federal civil rights lawsuit that accused his superiors of thwarting his attempt to fully investigate a potential suspect in the case.

"Good news, finally some justice in the world," Callahan said after being told of the Appellate Court opinion. "It's a long time coming, but this guy deserves it. The case was just a bunch of smoke and mirrors."

Now-retired Edgar County Judge H. Dean Andrews in 2005 denied a motion to grant Whitlock a new trial. It was that denial that was reversed by the Appellate Court, Kling said.

In seeking a new trial, Kling and colleague Susana Ortiz referred to the federal court order in Steidl's case. "Acquittal was reasonably probable if the jury had heard all of the evidence," U.S. District Judge Michael McCuskey wrote.

Callahan testified at Whitlock's hearing for a new trial, during which Kling and Ortiz presented never-disclosed police reports documenting how a friend of the still-living key witness said the witness lied about being at the murder scene.

Whitlock was convicted in 1987 of killing Karen Rhoads, but not her husband. Steidl, 56, a one-time drinking buddy of Whitlock's, was convicted of both murders.

The federal court ruling triggered a probe by the office of Illinois Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan. Determining "information favoring the defense was never disclosed," Madigan dropped an appeal of the ruling.

The appellate prosecutor's office then dropped charges against Steidl, saying it couldn't prepare for a new trial within the 120-day deadline set by McCuskey.

Steidl is seeking a pardon from Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and in a hearing on that issue last year, Parkinson said a grand jury reconsidering the Rhoads murders failed to come up with new evidence. He reiterated that Thursday.

Prosecutors have the option of asking the Appellate Court to reconsider the Whitlock decision, seeking an appeal before the Illinois Supreme Court, going forward with a new trial or dropping the case, Kling said.

He planned to go to Danville Correctional Center on Friday to deliver the news to Whitlock.

"We're pleased with the court's decision, and look forward to the day when Herb Whitlock returns to his family," Kling said.

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