Monday, September 10, 2007

Truth, freedom and very slow justice

In the Gospel of John, Jesus said: "the truth will set you free." He did not warn that this could take 20 years.

Herbert Whitlock, of Paris, Ill., was convicted of a murder he did not commit in 1987. This weekend, he finally has reason to hope that he might see the outside of a prison cell and get to play with his grandson. Why do I care about this and what does it have to do with faith?

To make a long story short, as a college senior in 1999-2000, I enrolled in an Investigative Journalism class. Our professor, David Protess, was known for taking on cases of people who had been wrongfully convicted and were waiting to die either in prison or at the hands of the state. Several of those men have been released. He gave my team the case of Whitlock and Randy Steidl, who supposedly killed newlyweds Dyke and Karen Rhoads in the small town of Paris, Ill., about 200 miles south of Chicago. The two were stabbed more than 25 times each supposedly because of a drug deal gone bad.

The case had numerous holes in it then and our nine months of investigation only confirmed them and brought up a few new ones. We saw problems at all levels of the system: ineffective counsel, shoddy police work, and overzealous prosecutors (and that's being nice). Unfortunately, none of it led to the real killers, and while we helped bring some attention to the case with the help of CBS's 48 Hours and Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, we graduated without any real justice for Herb and Randy.

I've prayed for them over the years and three years ago we did have reason to celebrate. Randy was released. The appeals courts finally saw the shoddy evidence that managed to convict him and sent the case back for retrial. At that point the prosecutors realized it had no evidence to to retry him, dropped the case and set him free. Since the two men had separate legal counsel and ended up on different tracks in the system, Herb languished.

That brings us to last week, when the 4th District Illinois Appellate Court granted a new trial for 61-year-old Herb! The court cited ineffective counsel and the fact that the state had not shared all evidence with the defense. All of the evidence they mention was available long before we ever started looking at the case seven years ago.

When I got the news from my professor, I was in shock. Our system of democracy requires a lot of faith - not in God, but in the system -- and I think all of us involved in this case were beginning to lose ours. Nothing seemed to be working even when it was obvious to anyone looking at the facts that a grievous wrong had taken place here. In fact, we're still a little hesitant to get too excited. I'm trying to trust in a higher authority now, that truth will prevail for Herb and he will soon walk free.

Sadly, it still leaves us with a gap in justice. Dyke and Karen Rhoads have been dead for 21 years, and the state seems to be no closer to finding their killer than they were in July 1986.

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