On May 27, 2004, Edgar County Judge Dean Andrews signed the order setting free former death row inmate Gordon "Randy" Steidl. It took seventeen years to free Steidl, who was convicted in 1987 of the double homicide of Dyke and Karen Rhoads of Paris, IL. They were savagely stabbed to death in their beds as they lay sleeping. The crime occurred at approximately 4 a.m. on July 5, 1986, when neighbors heard a woman scream. A fire was set destroying evidence of the crime.
Steidl, and his co-defendant Herbert Whitlock were convicted based on perjured testimony of two alcoholics who claimed to have been eyewitnesses to the murders. Both witnesses denied knowing about a $25,000 reward that had been circulated in the seedy taverns ringing the courthouse by a man who at the time was being investigated by police as a potential suspect for arranging the murders. Steidl was represented at trial by Charleston, IL attorney John Muller.
Bill Clutter conducted the post-conviction investigation that federal judge Michael P. McCuskey relied on in granting a habeas petition filed by Jane Raley, Karen Daniel and Lawrence C. Marshall of the Bluhm Legal Clinic of the Northwestern University School of Law, and by Springfield attorneys Michael Metnick and Kathy Saltmarsh.
By April of 1992, Clutter's investigation revealed new evidence proving that a key prosecution witness, Debra Rienbolt, bore false witness against both Steidl and Whitlock. This evidence included forensic evidence proving that a broken lamp discovered by firemen had been broken after the fire had been suppressed, discrediting Rienbolt's trial testimony that she saw a broken lamp inside the bedroom as she witnessed the murders. At trial, Rienbolt testified, "somebody was holding a piece of it." In closing arguments, the prosecutor told the jury Rienbolt's knowledge of the broken lamp made her a "credible witness."
Clutter's investigation determined that the inside of the ceramic lamp had no soot and was bone white, meaning it had not been broken until after firemen had suppressed the fire. Blood spatter at the scene suggests that the lamp had been pulled off the nightstand by one of the victims. A fireman who entered the bedroom testified at trial that he found the lamp in the doorway of the bedroom and he scooted it out of the way and noticed the lamp was broken. Other firefighters had already entered the room and likely broke the lamp when they stepped inside.
On June 17, 2003, U.S. District Court Judge Michael P. McCuskey issued his opinion ordering the State to either release or retry Steidl. Judge McCuskey determined that Steidl's trial attorney failed to investigate his defense, and deprived Steidl of his constitutional right to effective representation of counsel.
Judge McCuskey noted that in 1997, the Illinois Supreme Court determined that the "evidence in this case was closely balanced" and "no physical evidence linked [Petitioner] to the crime scene and [Petitioner] presented an alibi."
Judge McCuskey wrote: "As presented at trial, the lamp was a significant detail used to bolster Rienbolt's credibility. The prosecution relied heavily on Rienbolt's supposedly accurate description of the crime scene to offset her doubtful credibility and the inherently unbelievable nature of her story . . . Had defense counsel presented expert testimony showing that Rienbolt's account of seeing a broken piece of the lamp was flatly inconsistent with the physical evidence from the crime scene, it would have gone a long way toward convincing the jury that Rienbolt's trial testimony was not actually an eyewitness account of the murders. This court concludes that there is a reasonable probability that scientific refutation of one of the key aspects of Rienbolt's testimony would have resulted in a different outcome at trial."
In March of 2000, the Illinois State Police reviewed new evidence documenting that Darrell Herrington, a second eyewitness who testified at trial, had received payment of the "reward" money in exchange for his false testimony against Steidl and Whitlock. The investigation was assigned to Michale Callahan Zone 5 commander of investigations. Callahan's investigation also came to the same conclusion that the testimony presented at trial lacked credibility.
On March 26, 2004, Attorney General Lisa Madigan announced she would not appeal Judge McCuskey's order. The Office of the State Appellate Prosecutor's Office then reviewed the case to determine whether to retry Steidl. Prosecutor David Rands presented the order to Nolle Pros the case.