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Freed man became face of broken system, helped ban death penalty

Illinois very nearly snuffed out a voice that turned out to be perhaps the state’s most heartfelt and effective against the death penalty.

The voice was that of exonerated convict Randy Steidl, who appeared at numerous legislative hearings and rallies to speak out against capital punishment.

But Steidl came close to execution himself for a 1986 double murder in Downstate Paris that he did not commit. He was freed in 2004 after 17 years in prison when new lawyers took up his cause.

Sen. Kwame Raoul, who led the fight in the state Senate for the death penalty abolition bill that Gov. Quinn signed Wednesday, said it was Steidl’s demeanor that made him effective.

“The important thing is that he didn’t come off as angry,” Raoul said. “He was able to articulate in a calm manner not just the specific facts of his case but also the shortcomings of the system.”

As Raoul wrapped up his remarks just before the Senate vote, he reminded fellow legislators that had Steidl not been freed, someone would have been charged with administering the drugs to kill him.

“I said, before you push the button [to vote], I want you to look up in the gallery at Mr. Steidl’s eyes and let me know if you would have been able to be the person to inject him,” Raoul said.

Other death penalty opponents said Steidl’s constant presence and aura of sincerity made him a particularly effective ambassador against the death penalty — not only in Illinois but also in New Mexico, where Steidl earlier campaigned and which abolished the death penalty in 2009. Steidl also has spoken to lawmakers in Connecticut, Colorado and Maryland.

But Steidl himself had a narrow escape from the death chamber. He and a co-defendant had already had been convicted on flimsy evidence and his appeal had been denied when a Springfield lawyer who grew up in Chicago — Michael Metnick — took on the case pro bono. Metnick earlier had represented Death Row inmate Alejandro Hernandez, who was freed in 1995.

Because Steidl’s appeal already had been denied, Metnick pursued a more difficult legal strategy called a post-conviction petition. But a judge refused to grant an evidentiary hearing — the only way to bring new evidence into the case — and it appeared Steidl had run out of options.

“It didn’t look good,” said Metnick.

Later, though, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of an evidentiary hearing. It was Steidl’s first big break in the case.

At the hearing, significant new evidence emerged. Testimony showed that the supposed murder weapon could not have caused the wounds. It turned out the state’s star witness had been paid $2,500. But the judge refused to grant a new trial. Steidl finally was freed after another round of appeals.

The case remains unsolved.



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