the early hours of July 6, 1986, firefighters responded to a
fire at a home in Paris, Illinois. It had been set in two locations.
In a bedroom firefighters discovered the bodies of Dyke and Karen
Rhoads. Dyke, lying near the door, had been stabbed 28 times.
Karen, near the foot of the bed, had been stabbed 26 times. The
wounds in each victim were up to six inches deep.
For two months the case stymied
investigators. Karen's employer offered a $25,000 reward. What
happened next calls to mind James Carville's remark about the
consequences of dragging a $100 bill through a trailer park.
A local alcoholic, Darrell
Herrington, told police he knew who had killed the Rhoadses.
First he blamed "Jim" and "Ed." Then he claimed
that, although he had been drinking from noon to midnight on
the day of the murders, he recalled driving to the Rhoadses'
home with two layabouts named Randy Steidl and Herb Whitlock.
While he waited in the car, he said, the other two went inside.
Herrington said he heard noises, used a credit card to open a
locked door and saw the bodies.
The police gave Herrington
a lie detector test. He failed.
A few months later, another
barfly came forward. Deborah Rienbolt, an alcoholic who also
abused drugs, told police that on the night of the murders, Whitlock
had borrowed a five-inch hunting knife from her and said something
about the Rhoadses and a drug deal gone bad. She said she later
drove by the Rhoadses' home and spotted Whitlock outside. In
a second interview with police, she said she had driven by, heard
screams, gone inside and saw Steidl and Whitlock and the bodies.
In a third interview, she said she had gone inside, saw the couple
being attacked and (inexplicably) held down Karen Rhoads as she
was killed. She said that when Whitlock returned her knife, she
soaked it in hot water and scrubbed the blood out of the crevices.
Prosecutors put Whitlock and
Steidl on trial for murder. Because no physical evidence linked
either man to the crime, the state relied on the witnesses' implausible
and contradictory testimony (neither reported seeing the other
at the scene). Somehow it was enough to convince two juries.
Steidl received a death sentence, while Whitlock got life.
After the trials, Herrington
recanted his testimony, then reaffirmed it. Rienbolt recanted
her story, reaffirmed it and then recanted again. She said police
had fed her details, such as a broken lamp at the crime scene,
that made her account appear credible. Three years ago journalism
students tracked down a former neighbor, now a surgeon, who had
lived across the street from the Rhoadses. On the night of the
killings he had been sitting outside, about 100 feet away from
the Rhoadses' house, with a friend who is now a U.S. marshal.
Neither recalled seeing or hearing anything unusual at the time
both witnesses insisted the murders had occurred. Neither man
had been interviewed by police.
Steidl and Whitlock have spent
the past 15 years in prison. There is more than reasonable doubt
to their guilt. Troubled by the evidence, an appeals court reduced
Steidl's sentence to life. Yet it also ruled that the strong
evidence of perjury was not enough to justify a new trial.
In layman's terms, Steidl
and Whitlock are fucked. The case has drawn the attention of
Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn and the CBS news magazine
48 Hours. But journalists don't decide, juries do. And when a
jury makes its decision based on what turns out to be bad information,
the system is reluctant to correct the error.
"You hear the lofty pronouncement
that better 10 guilty men go free than one innocent man suffer,"
says Rob Warden of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern
University School of Law. "But as a nation, we've never
believed that. It's the other way around."
If the number of prisoners
who have been released in capital cases is any indication, a
significant percentage of the 2 million residents of state and
federal prisons are living a nightmare. In Illinois, defense
lawyers, journalists and students have helped free 14 of 288
death row prisoners. That's an error rate (so far) of 4.9 percent
in cases that receive intense scrutiny. Applied to the general
inmate population, that would translate to roughly 100,000 people,
or enough to fill 80 prisons.
No official agency reviews
questionable convictions, so an assortment of activists tackle
the job. The Center on Wrongful Convictions each year hears from
4000 new prisoners who claim to be innocent. Because its staff
of three lawyers and a dozen students can juggle only about 25
cases, the center uses a questionnaire to screen applicants:
What was the physical evidence introduced at your trial? What
statements did you make or were you alleged to have made
during your interrogation? Were the principal witnesses
against you eyewitnesses, victims, investigating officers, purported
accomplices, jailhouse informants or forensic experts? What,
if any, was your defense? Do you have an alibi?
The most discouraging question
is, How much time do you have left? Because an appeal can take
years, the center and 20 or so other innocence projects around
the country don't assist inmates scheduled for release any time
soon. They also do not take cases in which the only evidence
is he said-she said testimony, such as with a charge of date
rape. "Many times a guy has a defense that's plausible,"
Warden says. "But the jury heard both sides and decided
against him. Legally, there's not much else to be done."
In more complex cases, which
is most of them, how does an innocent man end up behind bars?
Most often it's because of mistaken or perjured eyewitness testimony.
According to one study, eyewitnesses played a role in three quarters
of the first 67 convictions reversed by DNA evidence. In 38 percent
of death row exonerations, it was the only evidence presented.
Other common factors in false convictions include police misconduct,
lab errors, coerced confessions, dubious microscopic hair matches,
incompetent counsel (which is hard to prove in a single
year, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled three times that
lawyers accused of sleeping through portions of trials had provided
sufficient counsel) and prosecutors who withhold evidence or
otherwise break the rules. Prosecutors play these games because
they are under tremendous pressure to win and because they have
little to fear if they're caught. The Chicago Tribune analyzed
381 murder cases in which defendants had convictions overturned
because of official misconduct and found that not a single prosecutor
had been charged with a crime or disbarred. Only five faced public
discipline, and the harshest punishment was a 30-day suspension.
Many went on to become judges or district attorneys. One was
elected to Congress.
Because neither wants to be
accused of being soft on crime, Congress and the courts emphasize
bureaucracy over justice. In one notorious case, the U.S. Supreme
Court refused to hear a condemned man's compelling claim of innocence
because years earlier his lawyers had missed a filing deadline.
In 1993, the court ruled in
Herrera vs. Collins that a prisoner cannot simply argue in federal
court that new evidence points to his innocence. He first must
prove that his trial contained procedural errors (the technicalities
that may free the guilty but also protect the innocent). In this
case, Leonel Herrera had been convicted of shooting two police
officers. Ten years later, he submitted affidavits from witnesses
who said that his now-dead brother had been the killer (one witness
was his brother's son, who says he saw the murders). Without
considering the statements, the court told Herrera to sit down
and shut up. "Federal habeas courts do not sit to correct
errors of fact but to ensure the individuals are not imprisoned
in violation of the Constitution," it said.
In other words, being falsely
imprisoned is not a violation of your rights.
Herrera was executed four
months after the ruling. In his final statement he said: "I
am innocent, innocent, innocent. . . . I am an innocent man,
and something very wrong is taking place tonight."
Legislators have cut off other
escape routes. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty
Act, championed by Senator Orrin Hatch and passed in 1996, gives
an inmate 12 months after his or her conviction to file a writ
of habeas corpus, which is a request for a federal court to review
the case for constitutional violations. Most states also impose
restrictive deadlines some require prisoners to present
new evidence within 30 days after their trial (the average time
between conviction and exoneration is 12 years). A number of
states have "closed discovery" statutes that prevent
defense attorneys or journalists from reviewing the evidence
after a conviction.
If judges refuse to consider
new evidence, who's left to correct the errors? Prosecutors aren't
lining up for the job, despite an oft-cited admonition by the
Supreme Court that they operate with "the twofold aim that
guilt shall not escape nor innocence suffer."
The state of Virginia has
made a mockery of that ideal. In its most callous moment, it
denied a condemned prisoner the chance to prove his innocence
with DNA. Joseph O'Dell, a career criminal, was convicted in
1986 of a rape and murder. The jury based its verdict on tire
tracks said to be "similar" to those of his truck,
bloodstains on his clothes found to be "consistent"
with the victim's (he said, and witnesses agreed, that he had
gotten into a bar fight) and the testimony of a jailhouse informant.
After the trial, the informant recanted (then reasserted, then
recanted again) and tests on O'Dell's shirt determined that the
blood didn't belong to the victim or O'Dell (tests on the jacket
were inconclusive). As early as 1988, O'Dell asked for DNA testing
of semen evidence. In a note to a judge, O'Dell wrote, "If
I were not innocent of this crime, I would have to be insane
to request DNA fingerprinting."
Prosecutors challenged the
request (suggesting at one point that persons unknown may have
contaminated the sample by mixing in someone else's semen), and
the courts denied O'Dell's appeals. In 1997 the state killed
him. Following his execution, the Catholic Church and O'Dell's
widow asked a judge to release the semen sample and O'Dell's
bloody jacket for DNA testing. A state's attorney objected, telling
the judge that if tests showed O'Dell had not committed the crime,
"people will shout from the rooftops that the Commonwealth
executed an innocent man." The judge declined to release
the semen or the jacket (the state argued that because O'Dell
had stolen it, it didn't belong to his family). Prosecutors then
asked for permission to burn the evidence. Permission granted.
Our system of justice is the
best in the world. We're justifiably proud. But what happens
when that pride turns to arrogance?
Chip Rowe. This article first appeared in Playboy, July 2002.
Playboy. Reproduced by permission.
Innocence Projects (site),
Randy Steidl is freed (May 2004)
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