Monday, June 5, 2006

Paris frame job falling apart

48 Hours Graphic-1

I'm involved in an infamous Downstate murder case where the news media is generally following along a storyline that says two men were wrongfully convicted of murder and those who are fighting on their behalf are right and everyone else is wrong.

What isn't getting as much attention is that advocates for the two men are insidiously throwing mud at an innocent man.

I represent that innocent man and I'm happy to report today that piece-by-piece, we are washing off the mud that has been unfairly thrown at him. Known in the news media as the Paris "businessman of interest," my client answered hours of questions from the Illinois State Police and FBI without bringing a lawyer and then passed a state police polygraph. It's the second polygraph he passed; the first one he paid a private firm to test him.

The questions revolve around the 1986 murders of Karen and Dyke Rhoads in Paris, Illinois, a town of about 9,000 near the Indiana border southeast of Champaign. Karen and Dyke were stabbed multiple times and their house was set on fire. Convicted of the murders were Randy Steidl and Herb Whitlock. Steidl was granted a new trial by a federal court and state prosecutors declined to re-prosecute him. He is free and has asked the state to grant him clemency or lifetime immunity from re-prosecution based on "actual innocence," a request pending before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board.

Whitlock was denied a new trial by a state court and remains in state prison.

Defense lawyers know that in Illinois the news media is ready, willing and able to promote any case of innocence and that they will gloss over inconvenient facts.

CBS' 48 Hours has done two shows on the case, in 2000 and 2005, using Northwestern University journalism students' "reinvestigation" of the case as the news hook. Their professor, David Protess, pointed the finger at my client on national television and then made an outrageously false claim about a key fact in the case. He said Steidl and Whitlock were nowhere near the murder scene at the time Protess conjectured it occurred even though Steidl himself has admitted he was driving nearby in the early morning hours to mail an unemployment form.

The Tribune's Eric Zorn has been a pivotal advocate on behalf of Steidl's and Whitlock's innocence and has laid out many of the problems of the case from their point-of-view. His writings have ignored some important evidence that would weaken his argument, such as some holes in their alibis, the documented cocaine selling relationship between Herb Whitlock and Dyke Rhoads, and public statements by Steidl and Whitlock that they didn't know Dyke Rhoads when it is obvious they did.

Anyway, my point is not to judge whether Steidl and Whitlock are guilty or innocent. I don't know. I agree there are serious questions about the original case and the legal representation Steidl and Whitlock received. I do know what has been printed is blatantly one-sided and ignores important information. I could go on for a long time about some of the details of the case but won't right now.

My focus is on the smear campaign against my client. Retired Illinois State Police detective Michale Callahan, who had never headed a murder investigation, has been regaled by the media as some sort of hero. He has been the subject of fawning profiles in the Illinois Times and on a segment in the second 48 Hours piece.

He was assigned to reinvestigate the case after the ISP learned 48 Hours was snooping around in 2000. He bought the theories of a defense lawyer's investigator and quickly stated that Steidl and Whitlock were innocent and that my client ought to be investigated. His basis for that theory was contained in a series of memos that I obtained that are so riddled with factual errors I can't believe they were written by a professional law enforcement official.

Some colleagues in the State Police were dubious of the factual basis of Callahan's theories and friction resulted. Eventually, several people were transferred, including Callahan, and he filed a federal civil rights lawsuit that he mostly won on the point of whether his rights were violated, not whether he was correct about the case.

It's possible Callahan is right about the innocence of Steidl and Whitlock. But he is dead wrong about my client and he ought to say so. So should David Protess and Michael Metnick, Steidl's attorney, who has littered the clemency petition and a civil lawsuit with the half-baked Callahan theories.

Steidl and Whitlock have an absolute right to show they were unjustly accused but they don't have the right to frame an innocent man in the process.

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