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Thursday, May 19, 2011 04:38 pm

Pair freed from prison, but still not in the clear

Prosecution moves to retest DNA in controversial 1986 double murder

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Randy Steidl speaks to reporters after Illinois repealed the death penalty, which he advocated after being released from death row.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE
In 1986, newlyweds Dyke and Karen Rhoades were murdered and their bodies burnt in their Paris, Ill., home. Police arrested Randy Steidl and Herb Whitlock for the murders, and the two men each spent many years in prison before their cases were overturned.

Now, the DNA evidence in that double murder is being retested, and Whitlock and Steidl worry they could face renewed charges in the decades-old case.

Patrick Delfino, director of the Illinois Office of the State’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor, which is handling the case, declined to discuss on the record what evidence is to be tested or whether Whitlock and Steidl could face new charges.

“Any comment at this time would be inappropriate,” Delfino says.

Steidl spent almost 17 years on death row for the crimes. He was released in May 2004 after Steidl won an appeal for a new trial and prosecutors dropped the charges against him. Illinois Times first wrote about Steidl’s case in 1993.

Whitlock’s case remained lower profile because he was not sentenced to death. He spent almost 21 years in prison before his release in 2008. Though prosecutors declined to retry Steidl and Whitlock after their release, the pair has never been officially cleared of the murders, so they could face new charges at any time.

Flint Taylor, Steidl’s attorney, says that’s a very real possibility, even if the DNA evidence doesn’t actually implicate Steidl or Whitlock. He says the pair was framed the first time, and he’s not the only one who feels that way.

“Their suspicions and fears are well-founded in the sense that we know that these people have sought for decades to frame these men and are not satisfied with the fact that they’re innocent. They’re continuing on this disgraceful, legally-sanctioned vendetta.”

In 2009, the Rhoades case was the subject of a book written by Michale Callahan, the Illinois State Police detective assigned in 2002 to reinvestigate the case. The book, titled Too Politically Sensitive, details problems Callahan says he found with the original investigation and prosecution of Steidl and Whitlock, as well as his ISP superiors’ alleged attempts to get him to drop the case. Callahan, Steidl, Whitlock and others associated with their defense believe the case is a deeply political coverup involving public corruption and organized crime.

Whitlock and Steidl say the push to retest the DNA evidence is meant to intimidate them because of their ongoing lawsuit against the Illinois State Police, the City of Paris, Edgar County and several individuals involved with prosecuting the cases.

“They’ve wasted $14 million in taxpayers’ money defending this case,” Steidl says, referring to the civil case. “If they had just come and talked to me and Whitlock seven or eight years ago, we would have settled for a lot less…. When you’re suing the hierarchy of the ISP, these people will move heaven and earth to try and deny what happened 25 years ago.”

While it’s unclear what evidence the special prosecutor is hoping to test in the criminal case, Bill Clutter, a Springfield private investigator and founding member of the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project, says there is DNA evidence in the case that has yet to be fully tested. That evidence is a strand of body hair found on a pillowcase in the Rhoades apartment after the murders.

The hair was previously examined by investigators under Attorney General Lisa Madigan using a common DNA test, but the results were inconclusive. It has not been tested using a different method that Clutter believes could show that someone besides Whitlock and Steidl committed the murders.

The DNA evidence will be tested by a private lab, according to special prosecutor Edwin Parkinson. Taylor, Steidl’s attorney, says he does not trust any testing done by the prosecution in this case.

 “My understand is they’re thinking about using a lab that is totally in their pockets,” Taylor says. “I would like to believe that they’re looking for the real killer, but I have no reason to believe they are.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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