Senators hear from former death-row inmate

By Steve Terrell: The New Mexican

About six weeks before he was to be executed by the state of Illinois, Randy Steidl’s mother went to a cemetery and purchased a burial plot for him.

“That’s something a mother should never have to do,” Steidl told a reporter Friday.

Steidl came to Santa Fe to try to persuade to New Mexico senators to support House Bill 285, which would repeal the death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.

New Mexico is one of 36 states that still have capital punishment. Although Gov. Bill Richardson has long supported the death penalty, he said recently that he has softened his stance and might consider signing a repeal bill if the Legislature passes one.

The bill approved by the House is scheduled to be heard Monday in the Senate Judiciary Committee — which in recent years has been the place where death-penalty-repeal bills have died.

Steidl, one of several former death-row inmates to come to New Mexico in recent years to talk to lawmakers about capital punishment, was convicted of murder in 1987. He and former drinking buddy Herb Whitlock were found guilty of killing a young newlywed couple, Dyke and Karen Rhoads, in Paris, Ill., a small town about 150 miles south of Chicago. The victims were stabbed repeatedly in their bedroom before their home was set on fire.

Steidl is a free man. In 2004, after he had spent 17 years in prison, 12 of them on death row, a federal judge ruled that Steidl either be released from prison or retried. After reexamining the case, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan decided not to retry Steidl.

However, the original prosecutor in the case last year told CBS — which has featured the case more than once on its network TV news program “48 Hours” — that Steidl and Whitlock are still suspects in the case, even though the federal judge’s decision cast serious doubt on key physical evidence and the testimony of alleged eyewitnesses to the killings, both of whom later recanted their testimony.

Nobody else has been charged in the killings.

A former Illinois state police lieutenant who tried to reopen the case told CBS, “I was told that I could not reopen the Rhoads case, that it was too politically sensitive. I could not touch it.” The officer, Michale Callahan, eventually was transferred out of the department’s investigations division. He sued the department, claiming his superiors punished him for conclusions he reached in that investigation. Though the jury ruled in Callahan’s favor, a federal appeals court reversed that verdict.

Whitlock, Steidl’s co-defendant, who was sentenced to a prison term rather than death, was not released until last year.

Steidl on Friday talked about possible political motives for Illinois authorities. He said that shortly before the murders he and Whitlock had talked to the FBI about corruption and public drug use by local law enforcement.

“Twelve years on death row and there were twelve men executed,” Steidl said. “I didn’t see a tear in the eye of any of those guys. They were being released. I really believe that life in prison without parole is the worst punishment you can give anyone.”

Steidl has two children, a son who was 9 when his father went to prison and a daughter who was 16.

“They didn’t have a dad to go to their graduations or their weddings,” he said.

Steidl said he worked in the printing business after his release but recently was laid off. He’s also worked for Witness to Innocence, a Philadelphia-based organization opposed to the death penalty. He said he’s been to several other state legislatures to lobby for death-penalty abolition, including Texas, Maryland, Nebraska and North Carolina.

Steidl said his mother died last month. “At least she got to see me free,” he said. The burial plot she bought for her son is next to her own grave. “Someday I’ll be resting there beside her,” he said.

Other former death-row inmates who have testified here in recent years against capital punishment include Juan Melendez, who spent 17 years on Florida’s death row. Melendez now lives in New Mexico.

Another is Ron Keine, who, along with three other members of a California motorcycle gang, were convicted in 1974 of the murder of a University of New Mexico student. Keine and the others spent nearly two years on this state’s death row until the real killer confessed.

It’s hard to determine what, if any, effect the testimony of wrongly-convicted death row inmates has had on New Mexico lawmakers.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, predicted Friday HB285 would pass the Judiciary panel on Monday. “I know there’s five sure votes in favor,” he said. “There’s a couple I’m not sure of.”

There are 11 members of the committee, seven Democrats, including Sanchez, and four Republicans.

Contact Steve Terrell at 986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexican.com