From SL Today – Herb Whitlock spent more than 20 years sticking to routine.
What wasn’t dictated to him by the Illinois Department of Corrections he filled in with yoga, the study of Buddhism and, above all else, a rigid focus on the present.
At 61, Whitlock faces a sudden array of choices. A judge on Tuesday morning ordered him freed from prison, just over 20 years after he was convicted of killing Karen Rhoads of Paris, the eastern Illinois town where they both lived.
Whitlock’s plans included greeting the 7-year-old grandson he’d never met. Beyond that, he said he didn’t have “hard-set” plans.
“I learned from the past experience not to make any,” Whitlock said after being released.
During a brief court hearing, Whitlock nervously stroked his gray beard and mustache, staring straight ahead. Later, Edgar County Circuit Judge James Glenn wished him well.
After years of legwork on his behalf by lawyers and law and journalism students, the 4th District Illinois Appellate Court in Springfield ruled in September that Whitlock should get a new trial because jurors hadn’t been presented key evidence in the case. Prosecutors last week filed paperwork saying they did not plan — at the moment, anyway — to retry him.
Rhoads and her husband, Dyke, died after a violent struggle in their home in July 1986. Each was stabbed more than 20 times and their house, about 50 miles southeast of Champaign, was set on fire after they were killed.
Whitlock and his friend Gordon “Randy” Steidl were convicted by separate juries of fatally stabbing Karen Rhoads. Steidl was also convicted of killing Dyke Rhoads.
Whitlock was given a life sentence, while Steidl was sentenced to die. Steidl, convicted on much of the same evidence, was released from prison in 2004 and now lives in Missouri.
One of his attorneys said Whitlock’s release was long overdue.
“It’s a long time coming,” said Richard Kling of Chicago.
But prosecutors said that the Illinois State Police were still investigating the case and that Whitlock could one day end up back in court.
“We’ve always believed (Steidl and Whitlock) were responsible,” said prosecutor Michael Vujovich of the state Office of the Appellate Defender.
Kling doubted the state could produce evidence to retry Whitlock.
“It’s a closed case in my opinion,” he said.
Citing the open investigation, an Illinois State Police spokesman declined comment.
Members of Dyke Rhoads’ family have long said they believed someone else killed the couple, and said Tuesday was full of mixed emotions.
“While Herb Whitlock and Randy Steidl today have the freedom they have sought for so long, Dyke and Karen still don’t have the justice they deserve,” family members said in a statement.
Whitlock has always maintained his innocence.
In 1999, Northwestern University journalism professor David Protess and four students found enough problems with the convictions to get Kling and fellow Chicago attorney Susana Ortiz to take on the case at no charge.
Steidl was freed after 12 years on death row when a federal judge ordered the state to release or retry him. The judge said jurors might have found Steidl innocent if his defense hadn’t been deprived of key evidence.
In Steidl’s appeal, a forensic pathologist testified that the knife reportedly used to kill Karen and Dyke Rhoads wasn’t consistent with their wounds.
But now-retired Edgar County Judge H. Dean Andrews denied Whitlock a new trial in 2005. Whitlock appealed that decision, which lead to the September ruling.
The appeals court also noted other problems in Whitlock’s conviction, among them that police gave a key witness against him liquor the day before he testified in front a grand jury. The witness, according to the court, also told investigators that “Jim and Ed” had killed the couple, evidence Whitlock’s trial attorney never presented.
A couple of hours after walking out of the Edgar County Jail in dark-blue, state-issue pants and jacket, Whitlock stepped into a gathering of family, friends and legal supporters at the Sycamore Hills Country Club on the edge of Paris.
Wearing a long-sleeve, white T-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes, he accepted handshakes, hugs and applause, then spooned up chocolate chip and vanilla ice cream, the one thing he said he wanted when he was freed.
His daughter, Brittany White, said that for now he’d live in Paris with her.
White, now 34, was an eighth-grader when her father went to prison. In recent years, he’d asked her not to visit, limiting communication to letters.
“He didn’t want me to see him living in the conditions he’d been living in,” she said. “In the last 20 years, I’ve probably seen him 10 times.”
The meeting with her son, Austin, would have to wait until he got out of school, she said.
His attorneys said they expected to file a civil lawsuit within a month.
State Police lieutenant Michale Callahan was assigned in 2000 to take another look at the investigation and concluded the two men were innocent. Now retired, he was in the courtroom Tuesday and called Whitlock’s two decades behind bars a travesty.
“This can happen to anyone in this country if government’s allowed to go unchecked,” he said.