November 30, 2011 04:18 PM
Illinois State Police Settles Wrongful Conviction Lawsuit
Man once on death row for Downstate murders to get $2.5 million in rare case against state cops.
By John Conroy/BGA
Former death row inmate Gordon Randy Steidl, who was released from prison in 2004 after a federal court threw out his murder conviction and the Illinois Attorney General declined to retry him, has settled a lawsuit against the Illinois State Police for $2.5 million.
The settlement may be a first for the Illinois State Police, which has rarely, if ever, been sued directly for wrongful conviction, according to lawyers who specialize in such lawsuits. The agency’s lawyers have settled no other such cases in the six years the current legal team has been in place, said state police spokeswoman Monique Bond.
To learn more about this topic, see the BGA's recent special investigative series: "The High Costs of Wrongful Convictions"
Steidl, 60, spent more than 17 years in prison, 12 of them on death row, for the 1986 murder of Dyke and Karen Rhoads in Paris, Ill. In 2003, a U.S. District Court judge threw out his conviction, saying, "Acquittal was reasonably probable if the jury had heard all of the evidence." Steidl was released from prison the following year after Attorney General Lisa Madigan declined to try him again.
His co-defendant, Herbert Whitlock, who had been given a life sentence, was released in 2008. Both men filed civil suits against the state police, the Paris police and the Edgar County state’s attorney. Whitlock’s case against the state police continues.
As of June 8, the Illinois State Police had spent more than $3.7 million defending itself in the two cases, according to documents provided to the Better Government Association under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
The police agency was sued for its involvement in the original murder investigation and for suppressing a series of reports written by an Illinois State Police lieutenant and a state police intelligence analyst who were later asked to review the case. Those reports, written between 2000 and 2003, raised severe doubts about the credibility of the witnesses against Steidl and Whitlock and concluded that the original investigation had ignored more likely suspects, including one with political connections.
In 2001, the intelligence analyst wrote that if all the witnesses were telling the truth, "it would have been almost impossible for Steidl and Whitlock to have committed these murders." The documents were turned over to Steidl’s attorneys only after he was released from prison.
All seven of the Illinois State Police officials named in the lawsuits have retired.
Asked how this settlement reflected on the integrity and reputation of the police, particularly given that those named in the lawsuit were primarily supervisors, Bond provided this statement from Illinois State Police Director Hiram Grau: "The service, pride and integrity demonstrated by the men and women of this Department cannot be defined by a single lawsuit. The hard work and dedicated service provided by the men and women of this Agency is defined by their leadership and commitment to serve every day, as they risk their lives to ensure that others are safe."
Flint Taylor, an attorney representing Steidl in his civil suit, said the settlement "represents confirmation of the facts of the case – that numerous ISP [Illinois State Police] agents, who are dutied with assisting small towns and counties with complex criminal investigations, participated with local police and prosecutors in a frame-up of two innocent men and a cover-up of that wrongdoing that has been ongoing for more than two decades."
The state police has been able to – at least in recent years – avoid similar lawsuits, which have plagued other law enforcement agencies such as the Chicago Police Department.
Randy Steidl (Photo/Center on Wrongful Convictions)
The only other high-profile case involving the state police in recent memory centered on Pamela Fish, a former employee of the state police crime lab. She was named in other wrongful conviction lawsuits, but the allegations in those cases arose from her years as a Chicago police employee.
The Steidl settlement is the second recent legal wallop for the state police. Earlier this year, the agency was ordered to pay $8 million to the family of two sisters killed in a 2007 car crash caused by a state trooper near Fairview Heights, Ill., officials said.
While on death row, Steidl was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease shortly after getting his first execution date, was attacked by other inmates who nearly severed the top half of his left ear, and survived a fire during which he lost consciousness and was evacuated to a local hospital, according to documents filed by his attorneys. He had two children, ages 9 and 16, when he was arrested, and his brother was a state policeman who has only recently retired.
Steidl called the settlement an admission that the state police "played a part in my wrongful conviction and continued imprisonment" and "that I can no longer be considered a suspect. Why would you settle with a suspect in a double murder case?"
In the six years after Steidl filed his civil suit, the state police insisted that he and Whitlock were still suspects in the case. Multiple other suspects are listed in police documents and the case remains unsolved.
Steidl’s now-settled civil rights lawsuit alleged false arrest and wrongful conviction, but Bond said this "is not a wrongful conviction case. He was not exonerated. Settlement is not a reflection of guilt or innocence, nor is it an admission of any wrongdoing on behalf of the ISP."
Steidl told the BGA that he has lived very frugally in recent years, particularly after being laid off by a printing company in 2008.
"When you fill out a job application, you are asked ‘Have you ever been convicted of a felony?’ You cannot lie about it. So how do you explain 17 years of your life stolen in order to secure employment?" Steidl said. "They want to keep you indigent or more destitute in order to get you back into the system."
Steidl’s case continues against the city of Paris, former Paris police officials Gene Ray and James Parrish, and the ex-Edgar County state’s attorney, who Steidl said he regards as the "principal culprits" in his case.
Responding to that accusation, former Paris police chief Ray said, "Since there is an ongoing lawsuit I don’t suppose there is anything I can say that can make any difference. He is entitled to his position and I am entitled to mine."
Parrish, the former Paris police detective who worked the case, told the BGA, "His accusations towards us are all wrong and if we ever get a chance to go to court, we’ll prove it."
Attorneys representing the city of Paris and Edgar County declined to comment. Michael McFatridge, the Edgar County state’s attorney who prosecuted Steidl and Whitlock, now works as a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He did not return calls for comment.
Steidl says he hopes that the state police settlement will remove a barrier to getting a pardon from Gov. Pat Quinn and lead to a new investigation of the murders, "which the families of the victims deserve."
Steidl is expected to receive his settlement payout in 2012. He says that money will not change his involvement in the movement to abolish the death penalty across the country, an effort that has brought him to seven other states in recent years as a featured speaker. Steidl was prominent in the successful battle to abolish the death penalty in Illinois earlier this year.
"I am not going to go away," he said.
BGA Senior Investigator John Conroy reported and wrote this report. He can be reached at (312) 453-0632 or firstname.lastname@example.org.