After ’48 Hours’ story, prosecutors expected today not to oppose convicted man’s appeal

Beth Kormanik

Less than 48 hours after CBS’ “48 Hours” aired a story about a Medill investigative journalism class’ probe into two life-sentence convictions, prosecutors are expected today not to oppose one of the convicted men’s appeal for a new trial, members of the investigative team said.

The Illinois attorney general’s office filed an emergency motion Tuesday to withdraw from Randy Steidl’s scheduled appeal for a new trial — a move that leaves the students unsure but hopeful about what will happen to Steidl.

On Tuesday afternoon, Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn broke the developments to Medill Prof. David Protess, who said Zorn planned to detail them in a column.

A yearlong investigation by Protess and his four students uncovered inconsistencies in the state’s case and new evidence that could connect the murder to two Florida men.

Steidl and Herb Whitlock are serving life sentences for the 1986 stabbing death of newlyweds Dyke and Karen Rhoads of Paris, Ill.

The state was scheduled to present oral arguments before a three-judge Illinois Appellate Court in Springfield at 10 a.m. today, but it is expected to withdraw from the case because of a “conflict of interest,” said Medill graduate student Kirsten Searer.

The motion has left Steidl “in legal limbo,” because the students are unsure of the nature of the state’s conflict of interest, said Searer, a former managing editor of The Daily.

The students have not seen the motion.

“I’m excited but cautious because we don’t exactly know what this means,” Medill senior Diane Haag said. “There’s no precedent for what’s going to happen next.”

The court was supposed to have heard an appeal that contended that Steidl did not receive a fair trial and is entitled to a new one. The state was scheduled to argue that the judges should uphold a previous ruling that said he did receive a fair trial, but the motion to withdraw means that the state will not make those arguments.

The attorney general’s office did not return calls Tuesday.

Two of the four students planned to travel to Springfield to hear the developments in court themselves.

Although the appeal is for Steidl’s case and not Whitlock’s, “what’s good for Randy is good for Herb,” Searer said.

In their investigation, Haag, Searer and Medill graduate students Greg Jonsson and Krista Larson have grown sure that Whitlock and Steidl did not commit the crime.

“We’ve gone from not knowing who did this (crime) to being sure of their innocence,” said Jonsson, a Daily staffer. “The new things we’ve found, anything that can shed new light, we’re excited about. We’re holding our breath waiting to see what happens.”

The Steidl case is one in a series of questionable convictions Protess and his journalism classes have investigated. In February 1999, the class helped prove the innocence of Anthony Porter, who was on death row for nearly 17 years. Another class helped clear the Ford Heights Four in 1996.