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We Must Insist on Accountability for Wrongful Convictions

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Former death row inmate Randy Steidl, sentenced to die for the 1986 murders of Dyke and Karen Rhodes in Paris, Ill., and released from prison seven years ago amid questions of his innocence and possible improprieties by law enforcement, recently settled a wrongful conviction lawsuit against the Illinois State Police for $2.5 million.

Steidl's case was one of 85 wrongful convictions examined by the Better Government Association earlier this year. That investigation, conducted in a partnership with the Center on Wrongful Convictions, found those 85 cases cost Illinois taxpayers $214 million, incarcerated the wrong people for 926 years and left the actual perpetrators on the street, where they committed at least 14 murders and 83 other felonies. We also found that mistakes and misconduct by police, prosecutors and forensic experts contributed to 81 of the 85 wrongful convictions.

While the recent financial settlement may close the book on Steidl's legal battle with the ISP, it's not a satisfying ending. The allegations of police misconduct in this case are too serious to write off as ancient history, as the work of a few bad apples who lacked supervision or as some sort of minor administrative error. The ISP's initial investigation, conducted with the Paris police and the Edgar County state's attorney's office, was severely flawed at best. In 2005, a state police investigator wrote that the two witnesses who provided key testimony that put Steidl and co-defendant Herbert Whitlock at the scene of the murders had been "invented."

Who orchestrated that alleged invention? Why weren't more likely suspects pursued? If Steidl and Whitlock were indeed innocent -- which the state police still won't officially acknowledge -- why leave the actual killers on the street?

The ISP's second look at the case, which began in 2000, raises other troubling questions. The lieutenant initially assigned to the job concluded that Steidl and Whitlock were in all likelihood innocent and that there were other more likely suspects. The lieutenant made that case several times to his superiors, and other officers agreed and also filed memos to that effect. The lieutenant was taken off the case. And his memos and supporting material from other ISP officers were not turned over to defense attorneys until after Steidl was released from prison. (A federal judge ruled that Steidl's "acquittal was reasonably probable if the jury had heard all of the evidence," and he was released from prison in 2004. Whitlock walked free in 2008, after a judge ruled that the prosecution had withheld exculpatory evidence.)

It may be that the statute of limitations precludes charges resulting from the original investigation and the department's subsequent review. But an inability to indict for the misconduct of the distant past was also the case with former Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge, who went to prison earlier this year, 18 years after he was fired amid allegations that he had tortured suspects to get confessions. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, unable to charge Burge with any act of torture in the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s, used Burge's false testimony under oath in a 2003 civil suit to prosecute him for obstruction of justice and perjury.

In the Paris, IL, case, the state police officers who were involved in the alleged cover-up and an officer who took part in the initial murder investigation have all testified under oath in the civil suits filed by Steidl and Whitlock. It may be that those officers, most of whom are now retired and drawing taxpayer-funded pensions, did not break any law. It may be that there is nothing in the depositions in those two cases to prosecute (it's difficult, for example, to make a perjury charge on the basis of "I don't recall" or a refusal to answer a question). Or it may be that there is simply no way to mount a case (Fitzgerald did have the advantage of compelling medical testimony to back up his belief that torture had taken place). We'll never know unless some highly respected, certifiably independent special prosecutor or the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of Illinois takes a look.

Even if no indictments can be issued, a report could explain to taxpayers, on the hook for legal bills that could approach or surpass $10 million, how this case went so horribly wrong.

Wrongful convictions have ruined lives and wasted tax dollars. They represent a shameful and reprehensible miscarriage of justice. Those stains on our democracy can't be removed. But the Burge case demonstrates that a measure of accountability can still be salvaged, even decades after the fact. The Steidl settlement can and should prompt another attempt to impose accountability measures if they're warranted. Better government demands no less.

John Conroy is a senior investigator at the Better Government Association in Chicago and the author of Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture, a book that deals in part with the Burge scandal. He can be contacted at jconroy@bettergov.org or (312) 453-0632.