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Thursday, Jan. 27, 2011 11:43 am

More important than repealing the death penalty

I just finished reading the feature article on capital punishment by Bill Clutter [see “From death row to hero,” Jan. 28]. As good as the article is, Bill ignores the real challenge that is more important than repealing the death penalty. Repealing the death penalty would not have stopped Randy Steidl from sitting in prison for 17 years.

On June 5, 2004, Bill Clutter wrote a column for the State Journal-Register entitled, “State should rein in bad prosecutors.” His column told the story of the conviction of Randy Steidl for a murder he did not commit. The evidence did not support the conviction and came about because the Edgar County state’s attorney railroaded Steidl in spite of the evidence. Testimony against Steidl was riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions. This conviction was step two of the three crimes committed against Steidl. The first one was the fact that the cops and state’s attorney filed charges against a man they knew didn’t commit the crime.

Now comes Lt. Michale Callahan of the Illinois State Police assigned to reinvestigate Steidl’s conviction. He is told to support the conviction and not to rock the boat. He chose to do the review honestly and found that the evidence proved Steidl innocent of all charges. He submitted an honest report and was penalized for doing the job he swore to do. He lost his job as an investigator and was assigned to traffic. The state police instructing an officer to lie was step three in the crimes committed against Randy Steidl.

The evidence that Lt. Callahan used to reach the not guilty decision was the same evidence that the state’s attorney used to convict Randy. This evidence was available before Steidl’s arrest, and before Steidl’s trial, but the state’s attorney chose to ignore it. Many people are convicted of crimes they didn’t commit in spite of the evidence because bad prosecutors, bad cops and bad witnesses commit felonies with little or no risk of being held accountable for their misdeeds.

Eliminating the death penalty does not fix the problem. What we should be doing is enacting laws that make it a certainty that anyone who participates knowingly in an action that wrongly convicts anyone of any crime will be held accountable, not just death penalty cases. Then you would be fighting for every person that is arrested, not just death penalty cases. This law would have protected Steidl from the death penalty and the 17 years he spent on death row. Isn’t that what we should be doing, protecting everyone?

Now, wouldn’t you think that this whole situation would be behind Steidl? You would be wrong. Randy Steidl still has the arrest on his record. You would think that since Steidl was found not guilty that the state would remove the arrest from his record. Once again, you would be wrong. Steidl will have to have an attorney file the paperwork to get his arrest expunged from his record.

Recently I read about Jon Burge of the Chicago police department who was found guilty of two counts of obstruction of justice and one count of perjury for heinous acts he committed as far back as 1981. Many of the confessions he beat out of innocent men sent those men to prison, some to death row. It only took 29 years for Burge to be brought to justice. How many innocent men and women were put to death and locked away by this one man? How many other police officers are doing the same thing today?

Burge received 4.5 years for sending innocent people to prison for hundreds of years, and sending some of them to their deaths. Sound fair to you?

Perhaps our legislators could take the time to introduce legislation that would protect innocent people and hold these people accountable. Would that be a cause worth fighting for?

David Barnett of New Berlin is a retired farmer and developer. Contact him at 217-488-6520.

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