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Exonerated former death-row inmate to speak at IU Bloomington, IUPUI

Randy Steidl was watching from the gallery in January when the Illinois House and Senate voted to abolish the death penalty. And no one had more reason to be glad for the result.

"It was a very historic day," Steidl said. "It was a very poignant moment for me. Twenty-five years ago, when I was sitting on death row and facing execution, I never thought I'd live to see that day."

Steidl spent 17 years in prison, including 12 years on death row, after he was convicted of murder. Exonerated after a new investigation and the use of DNA evidence, he left prison in May 2004, becoming the 18th person to go free after serving time on Illinois' death row for a wrongful conviction.

"You can release an innocent man from prison. I'm living proof of that," said Steidl, who now travels the country speaking out against capital punishment. "But you can't release him from the grave."

Randy Steidl

Randy Steidl

He will speak at IU Bloomington today (April 12), giving a Horizons of Knowledge lecture titled "Convicted, Condemned and Cleared: How an Exonerated Man Helped Abolish the Illinois Death Penalty." The talk will be at noon in the Moot Court Room of the IU Maurer School of Law. It is co-sponsored by the Department of Criminal Justice, the Criminal Justice Student Association, the Maurer School of Law and the Human Biology Program.

On Thursday (April 14), he will speak at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis at 7 p.m. in room 450C of the Campus Center. The event is sponsored by the School of Public and Environmental Affairs Student Council. After the talk, an expert panel will discuss the death penalty as public policy.

Steidl and a co-defendant, Herbert Whitlock, were jailed and convicted in the 1986 murder of two newly-weds in Paris, Ill., across the state line from Terre Haute, Ind. According to Witness to Innocence, an organization of exonerated death row survivors and their loved ones, they received poor legal representation, no DNA evidence was presented, and witnesses fabricated evidence because of police misconduct.

A federal judge ordered a new trial for Steidl in 2003 after the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University got involved and an Illinois State Police investigation cast doubt on the conduct of the murder investigation and trial. The state re-opened the case, tested DNA evidence and found no link to the defendants, and the state decided against retrying them.

The story may not be typical, but neither is it unique. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 138 people in 26 states have been exonerated and released from death row since states began reinstituting the death penalty in 1973.

Steidl said pressure on law enforcement officials to solve shocking crimes and bring perpetrators to justice can easily lead to wrongful convictions, especially in a small town like Paris, Ill. The result can be police or prosecutorial misconduct, perjured testimony, fabricated evidence -- or simply honest mistakes.

"The more egregious the crime, the more opportunity there is to make a mistake," he said. "Once that machinery of the capital punishment system starts turning, it's like a boulder rolling off a mountain. Nobody's going to stop it."

He argues that capital punishment is a barbaric policy that has been abandoned by most of the civilized world, but not the U.S. "Why do we want to be in the same category as Iraq, Iran, China and Afghanistan, countries that murder their own people?" he said. "And yet we wave the banner for humanity. It's hypocrisy."

While some death-penalty advocates argue that it's important for society to have the option of executing criminals for the most horrendous crimes, Steidl doesn't buy it.

"I was convicted of stabbing a young newly-wed couple 56 times and setting fire to their house," he said. "That's pretty heinous. But I was innocent."

But Steidl takes heart from the slow progress that the abolition movement is making. In the past four years, New York, New Jersey and New Mexico have repealed death-penalty statutes. And last month, Gov. Pat Quinn signed the law abolishing the death penalty in Illinois.

"I believe it's more than just a trend," Steidl said. "It's people being educated that there's a better way."