ILNews

Escaping execution

Michael W. Hoskins
September 30, 2009
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Justice in Question

In his years on death row, Gordon “Randy” Steidl watched a dozen men walk to their executions. The Illinois man said he would have made a similar final walk if it weren’t for a federal judge, who overturned his double murder conviction that had put him behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.

For more than a decade, Steidl had unsuccessfully tried to prove his innocence from prison. But with that federal judge’s finding and a subsequent decision not to retry him, Steidl became the 18th person in Illinois and 123rd nationally to be released from death row.

Ultimately, he won his freedom after a life-changing 17 years of incarceration, 12 of which were spent on death row before he was moved after being granted a new sentencing hearing.

Steidl’s story is one that shares common elements with a growing trend of wrongful convictions being found as flaws in the criminal justice system are exposed.

“We have an adversarial system that isn’t always about justice, it’s about revenge,” Steidl said. “The death penalty is the ultimate hate crime, and it gives the public that pound of flesh they want because of what happened. But we shouldn’t always execute... we want an eye for an eye, and that isn’t what our courts should be about.”

Using his case as a way to send a message, the Indiana Coalition Acting to Suspend Executions thinks Steidl’s story can illustrate why this state should impose a moratorium on the death penalty. It’s a move recommended by an American Bar Association Panel in 2007 but one that hasn’t yet taken hold here even as national numbers reflect the criminal justice system is turning away from executions.

As part of a yearlong campaign statewide, the group referred to as InCASE is questioning the state’s current death-penalty system and educating people about its use.

“The stakes are very different with death penalty cases and exonerations,” said Will McAuliffe, the group’s executive director. “Being locked up for something you didn’t do is a nightmare, don’t get me wrong, but it’s even more horrific when there’s a ticking time clock on your life and the time you have to prove your innocence is fading away.”

Currently, a total of 135 people have been exonerated from death row nationally, including two on Indiana’s death row. Those figures are minimal compared to the larger number of wrongful non-capital convictions, which continues to grow as DNA evidence and other aspects of cold cases are explored.

The Indiana Public Defender Council reports that since 1977, out of the 93 death sentences that have been handed down in this state, only 19 of those individuals have been executed -- eight since Gov. Mitch Daniels took office in 2005. The last Hoosier execution was in 2007 when Michael Lambert was lethally injected for fatally shooting a Muncie police officer 16 years earlier.

JourneyThe two-year lapse in executions is evidence of what McAuliffe and others say is a national trend. States are moving away from the death penalty, both the carrying out of executions and the judges or juries ordering death sentences. Part of the trend involves the high costs presented to cash-strapped counties, and the legal system’s recognition that sometimes justice can go wrong, advocates say.

“It sounds like an impossible thing to those outside the legal world, but we get it wrong,” McAuliffe said. “That’s why we want a moratorium. Death is much more concrete than any prison sentence, and we want an honest exam of the system. It’s perfectly appropriate to approach capital punishment with a degree of humility without saying the sky is falling.”

An ABA panel report in February 2007 showed Indiana’s process isn’t fair or accurate, and is in need of reform on multiple fronts. The report described the system as being so random that it’s known in legal circles as the state’s second lottery, but that hasn’t resulted in any substantive changes so far. Legislation calling for a moratorium failed, and the Indiana Supreme Court has upheld these sentences.

McAuliffe admitted a moratorium is a long shot, but he said the primary goal of his group’s campaign is to put a human face to those being put on death row, and those who can speak best about the potential mistakes that happen in the criminal justice system.

That’s where Steidl comes in. Through a partnership, InCASE and the non-profit Witness to Innocence project seek to expand the dialogue about death-penalty use nationally. McAuliffe said Steidl’s story is important to share because it involves common wrongful-conviction issues such as inadequate representation, faulty eyewitness testimony, police and political pressure, and the eventual intervention of an outside group to assist with representation in exposing the flaws.

“People have to talk about these people and what’s happening in our legal system, but it has to be outside the legalese and court opinions,” McAuliffe said. “We need to hear these stories firsthand.”

Steidl recalled how he was tied to the July 1986 murders of a newlywed couple, who were stabbed about 54 times and then left in a burned home in Paris, Ill., before being found by firefighters. He didn’t know either victim and had an alibi, but police questioned the then-35-year-old in what he thought was just an attempt to get more information from locals; he was by definition “no choir boy” having had some misdemeanor run-ins with the law previously. Several months passed, and in February 1987 he was arrested for the murders.

Within 97 days, Steidl was arrested, tried, convicted following a nine-day jury trial, and sentenced to death in a case that didn’t have any DNA or forensic evidence and relied mostly on eyewitness testimony. He lost seven state appeals, with two evidentiary hearings failing to change anything and every state judge denying his requests for a new trial.

“My journey through the appeals process was just an exercise in futility,” Steidl said, noting that in late 1996 the Illinois Supreme Court did grant a new sentencing hearing on grounds of ineffective trial counsel assistance.

That resulted in a re-sentencing of life without parole, after prosecutors decided not to pursue the death penalty again, he said.

Because witnesses began recanting statements, the Illinois State Police began investigating the case again and uncovered mistakes in the process and how Steidl and his co-defendant had been wrongfully targeted and convicted, he said.

McAuliffeThe Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law took his case and helped persuade a federal judge to change course. In June 2003, U.S. District Judge Michael P. McCuskey in the Central District of Illinois ordered a new trial and the state’s attorney general later decided not to appeal that decision or pursue the case against Steidl. In his opinion, Judge McCuskey wrote that acquittal was reasonably probable if the jury had heard all the evidence.

“They spent $3½ million to try and execute me, and I knew it was going to be tough to get another look after being affirmed so many times in state courts for 14 years,” Steidl said. “But finally, a real judge looked at the case and did what was right by the law. If we didn’t have the federal judiciary, I’d either be dead or still on death row.”

Steidl was released from prison May 28, 2004.

Since then, he’s been working in the manufacturing business and has reconnected with his family, all while traveling throughout the country to tell his story about his wrongful capital conviction. He spoke at the Indiana University School of Law -- Indianapolis in early September to discuss his ordeal, and he plans to travel with InCASE to other parts of the state in the next year. He advocates that life without parole is a more just sentence, given the examples of wrongful convictions being found nationally.

Without knowing a true number of convicts who may have been wrongfully convicted or executed for those crimes, Steidl and McAuliffe say it’s impossible to know the true nature of justice delivered in our nation’s courts.

They find hope in the reforms happening, but argue that more must be done.

“These incremental reforms are part of this bigger picture of acknowledging the system isn’t perfect and that we’re looking for ways to fix it,” McAuliffe said. “But maybe we can explore whether we should be executing people in the meantime while we are looking at these reforms.”

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  1. Am I the only one who sees that the City is essentially giving away the MSA site AND giving millions to build new buildings on the site when this site would be the perfect place for the Justice Complex? Across from City-County, check; keeping it centrally located, check, etc. It's my understanding that the GM site must be purchased by the City from Motors Liquidation Company. STOP WASTING WHAT WE ALREADY HAVE AND OUR TAX DOLLARS! The Ballard Administration has not been known for it's common sense...never voted for him and never will!

  2. This guy sounds like the classic molester/manipulator.

  3. Louis D. Brandeis was born in 1856. At 9 years of age it would have been 1865. The Brandeis family did not own slaves. My source Louis D. Brandeis: A Life, by Melvin L. Urofsky.

  4. My name is Matthew Lucas Major, I recently went through a jury trial in Bloomington , In. It was the week of Feb 19-21. Although I have been incarcerated since August 5, 2014. The reason I 'am writing to you sir is on the 21 of February the jury came in with a very excessive and wrongful verdict of guilty on 6 child molesting charges against my daughter who was 9 at the time I was accused. I also had 2 other Felonies one of Intimidation and 1 of Sexual Vicarious Gratification. Judge Marc Kellam on the second day of trial gave me a not guilty on those 2 felonies. The jury was sent out during that time and when brought back Judge Kellam told them to not concern themselves with the 2 Felonies that he ruled on them. They were told to not let evidence they had already heard influence there verdicts. I never in my life touched any child sexually and definitely not with my own daughter. When I was arrested Detective Shawn Karr told me I would be convicted guilty just on my daughters word even without evidence. That's just what happened. my public defender did me so wrong he never once proved to the court and jury all the lies the child told, and Jeremy Noel my public defender could of proven the lies easily. The stories in Serenity's depositions and Forensic interview changed and were not consistent as Prosecutor Darcie Fawcett claimed they were. Yet my attorney never mentioned that. The facts that the child accused me of full penetration in her vagina and rectum was proven lies. Doctor Roberta Hibbard of Riley hospital in Indianapolis confirmed Serenity's hymen intact, no scars, no tearing, no signs of rape to her. Yet my attorney didn't use that knowledge . the DNA was all in my favor. I tell you I will spend my entire life in prison going through rape and beatings etc. even Judge Kellam abused his authority by telling the jurors to listen and believe what the prosecutors side in evidence like my daughters testimony. In one interview with the detectives my daughter got flustered with her mom and said on camera " I'm saying what you told me to mom"!! Yet Mr. Noel said nor did anything to even resemble a defense attorney. Judge Kellam allowed edited version of a taped conversation between the child and her mother. Also Judge Kellam allowed the Prosecutor too bring in to my case a knife found under my seat, the knife wasn't part of my case. She was allowed by my attorney and the judge to put a huge picture of it on the screen and huge picture of my naked privates in a full courtroom and open court. Ms. Fawcett says to jury see how easy Mr. Major could reach the knife and cut his Childs throat. Even though I had no weapons charge against these cases. This gave the jurors prejudice thought against me thinking I threatened her with that knife and how scared she would of been knowing i could get it and kill her. On my sentencing court March 19, 2014 my public defender told Judge Kellam he wish to resign from being my attorney and wished for the court to give me outside council to file a error to trial or appeal. We were denied. Now after openly knowing my public defender don't want to represent me he has to. Well when as parents we make our kids clean a room when they really don't wish to, well the child will but don't mean she will do a good job, that's where I'm at with Mr. Noel. please dont ignore mine and my families pleas for your help . we have all the legal proof you could need to prove Im innocent. Please dont make my spend years in prison innocent when you can fix this wrong. Im not saying Im a perfect man or that I was a perfect dad to my 2 children none of us are. Ive made some bad choices in life and I paid for them. But I didnt ever touch or rape my daughter . I love my children with all my heart. And now through needing attention and a ex-wife who told my granny several times she wish she could put me in prison to get me out of their lives. Well my ex finally accomplished her goal. Sad part is she is destroying our daughter with all this horrific lies and things she taught my daughter to say. My daughter will need therapist to ever hope for a chance of a normal life after what she had done to her by her mom and their side of the family. My daughter told everyone even on stand she had a dream months before i supposedly molested her in this dream I was molesting her and when I finally did it matched her dream perfectly. She admitted to watching movies about little girls being molested and watching U-Tube videos about child molesting all before it happened supposedly to her. Doesn't that sound very unusual that a non molested 9 yr old would need to know so much about being molested? The only reason I could think a 9 year old would need so much information is to be prepared to know what to say and be able to say how it felt what took place etc.. So when questioned by authorities she would be prepared. And there again sir if a parent is pre grooming a 9 year old child she would need intimate details . Like telling her daughter about a couple moles on my private area. The child admitted to sneaking my cell and looking many many times at nudes of me and my girlfriend even one where my penis was entering my girlfriends vagina. In that picture my moles are obvious. Yet when prosecutor showed everyone in court my privates and pictures of the moles she said the only way the child would know about them is if she saw them for herself. My attorney once again said nothing about the pictures my child saw. Or could a ex-wife be able to describe my moles to help her case against getting rid of me? I beg you help me. This is my very existence. Ive lost everything , a good job, a wonderful girlfriend, my freedom, but worse thing Ive lost is my children. They were my reason to get up every morning and strive to be better. The wonderful bond I had with my Serenity is gone. After this I would be afraid to even hug her for fear of what next can they do to me. I'm not afraid to tell you I sit here in this cell and try to hold back my tears. Everyone knows you cant show weakness in prison. My life has already been threatened here at Wabash Valley Prison. After only 3 days of arrival. I was tricked into signing a waiver now Im in G Block General Population with 6 child molesting felony charges. Mrs. Hart as a 18 year old I almost died hooked to machines in hospital almost 1 month and now I know that fear was childish compared to this . I cant help but put emotions in this, after all Mrs. Hart Im human and God help Me I never been more afraid in my life. I didnt hurt my little girl I didnt touch her sexually. As much as it shreds me and fills my mind what Im facing I worry more about my mom and granny because of their great love for me mam they are suffering so deeply. I aint done this things but my loved ones suffering right along beside me and If you take my case you will be in essence freeing them also. I sent momma this letter and asked her to email it to you. I'm scared I have been done so unjustly by our legal system and I need you to fix this and give me freedom. I ask you please don't just ignore my pleas. Here in America its nice to be able to trust our legal justice system, well they destroyed my and my loved ones trust in our justice system . And I'm trusting in You !!! My entire family is suffering this nightmare with me. My 77 year old granny had a stroke and isn't doing so well. My single mother that raised 3 kids alone is dying from Lupus and since my arrest has stayed so sick and weary. Our lives torn to peices by a government I was taught I could trust in. my momma has tried so many innocent project and wrongfully accused and cant get anywhere. please please help me. A quote from the late Nelson Mandela: To be free is not merely to cast off ones chains, But to live in a way that respects and enhances The Freedom Of Others. I have Faith in you and your clinic to cast my chains off and give me freedom I do deserve as a wrongfully accused Man, son, brother, father, friend. Matthew Major DOC# 246179 Cause # : 53c02-1308-FA-000779 God Bless you. Please contact me with your decision so I know you made a life changing decision for me , just please at least write me so I know you care enough about your citizens to respond to cries for your help. You can speak openly with my mother Charlotte Spain (828) 476-0406: 71 Lakeview Dr. Canton, NC 28716 Thank You Matthew Major I know yall get thousands of request and inmates claiming innocence, and each person who are innocent deserve to have organizations like yours willing to fight for them and I give yall so much Thanks and I thank God everyday yall are out there caring enough to help free the innocents. Since discovering firsthand how easily lives and families can be destroyed by Poor Defense attorneys not doing their job . And Prosecutors allowed to do as they please in court

  5. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

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