Freedom granted, but not innocence
State to drop charges in 1986 killings of newlywed couple
By Hal Dardick
Tribune staff reporter
12:06 AM CST, January 5, 2008
A man convicted nearly 21 years ago in the murders of a newlywed couple from central Illinois is expected to go free next week after prosecutors on Friday filed a motion to drop charges against him.
The motion by the Illinois appellate prosecutor's office asks Edgar County Circuit Court Judge James Glenn to dismiss charges against Herb Whitlock, who has steadfastly maintained his innocence in the 1986 slayings of Karen and Dyke Rhoads in Paris, Ill.
Whitlock, 61, likely will be released at a court hearing on Tuesday, said Charles Colburn, one of the special prosecutors who signed the motion.
The case jumped to prominence a decade ago when experts in wrongful prosecutions branded it a miscarriage of justice, saying authorities used tainted evidence to convict two innocent men. Attorneys who have exposed similar cases in Illinois said Whitlock and his one-time co-defendant, Gordon "Randy" Steidl, were railroaded by police and prosecutors who put lying witnesses on the stand.
Now-retired Illinois State Police Lt. Michale Callahan, who in 2000 was assigned to take another look at the case, concluded Whitlock and Steidl were innocent and had been convicted on the testimony of unreliable witnesses.
Callahan later sued his superiors, saying he was reassigned to less-prestigious duties in retaliation for accusing them of thwarting his probe into other potential suspects. He won that suit, and arguments in the state's appeal of the ruling are set to be heard next week.
"It's a long time coming, and the state is finally doing the right thing," Callahan said Friday. "This is a case that has been tainted through the years, and there really was no way they could retry it."
But the motion to drop charges does not exonerate Whitlock and even suggests he could again be re-charged.
The appellate prosecutor's office asked "Illinois State Police to conduct additional interviews and to examine other evidence brought to light since the first trial," the motion states.
"Previously unknown information has come to light which requires additional investigation," it adds. "This motion is brought in the interest of justice to permit the People to complete their investigation and re-evaluation to determine whether pursuing criminal charges against the defendant are warranted."
Under Illinois law, prosecutors had until Feb. 22 to retry Whitlock after the 4th District Illinois Appellate Court in September overturned his conviction, citing the failure of prosecutors to turn over evidence that raised questions about the case and the failure of Whitlock's trial attorney to consult experts who could have rebutted expert testimony.
Colburn declined to discuss what new information state police obtained.
"I think the motion pretty much speaks for itself," he added.
But Andrea Trapp, Dyke Rhoads' younger sister, said she has lost faith in the state police. "I can't believe they have victimized Karen and Dyke over and over and over again," she said. "They don't want to solve it."
Defense attorney Richard Kling, who along with Susana Ortiz represents Whitlock, declined to comment on the motion except to say, "I'm looking forward to that motion being granted on Tuesday."
Prosecutors also have resisted exoneration of Steidl in the case. When he sought a pardon "based on innocence" before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board in mid-2006, attorneys from the appellate prosecutor's office said they continued to investigate the case and any potential involvement by Steidl. Colburn said Friday that Steidl still is under investigation.
Steidl was released from prison more than three years ago, after a federal judge ordered that he should receive a new trial. Illinois Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan's office then did an extensive probe of the case and ultimately dropped an appeal of the federal ruling after concluding "information favoring the defense was never disclosed."
The appellate prosecutor's office then dropped charges against Steidl, saying it could not prepare a case within the 120-day speedy trial deadline mandated by state law.
"It's wonderful that Herb Whitlock is going to be released, but it's irresponsible for the prosecutors to leave a continued threat of prosecution over the heads of Whitlock and Steidl," said Karen Daniel, one of Steidl's attorneys. "They've been investigating this case for 3½ years, since Randy Steidl was released. They ought to be able to say whether they can prosecute or not."
Steidl, 56, was convicted of both murders and initially sentenced to death. Whitlock was convicted at a separate trial of killing only Karen Rhoads. He was sentenced to life in prison.
In each case, the two main witnesses, one of whom died in February, repeatedly changed their stories. No physical evidence linked either man to the killings.
In a recent opinion related to a federal civil rights suit filed by Steidl, an appellate court stated evidence that wasn't turned over to his trial attorney "would have shredded the state's case."
Callahan noted the Rhoads killings remain unsolved. "The system let down Randy Steidl and Herb Whitlock, and it also let down Dyke and Karen Rhoads, because who knows if they will ever get to truth and justice," he said.