By Howard Greninger
PARIS, Ill. — As raindrops hit and rolled down his face, Herbert R. Whitlock walked down steps from an Edgar County Jail a free man Tuesday morning after spending nearly 21 years in the Illinois state prison system.
Judge James R. Glenn approved a prosecutor’s motion to drop charges against Whitlock in the 1987 slaying of Karen Rhoads. His release came more than 3 ½ years after prosecutors freed Gordon “Randy” Steidl, Whitlock’s former codefendant and drinking pal. Steidl had been convicted of murdering Rhoads and her husband, Dyke, on the same evidence.
Wearing blue prison garb, Whitlock, 61, quickly embraced his daughter, Brittany White, as he exited the jail, then went into a waiting silver sport-utility vehicle. Whitlock planned to go to his daughter’s home to spend time with his family.
“He plans to hold his grandchild which he never before has held,” said his attorney, Richard S. Kling, shortly after Whitlock was driven away. “He wants to get back to his family and be able to wake up when he wants to and go to sleep when he wants to and have the same freedom that we all enjoy.”
White and Whitlock each declined comment immediately after the court’s ruling.
Special Prosecutor Michael Vujovich said the state did not have time to prepare for a speedy trial.
“Under the statutory time constraints that we were operating under, the better course of action in our judgment, was to continue on with our investigation and depending on how that comes out on down the road, decide then and there whether or not to reinitiate the prosecution against Mr. Whitlock,” Vujovich said.
“While I am sure Mr. Whitlock and his supporters are very happy with the result of having him released, while they are celebrating one might also remember the memories of Dyke and Karen Rhoads, who are the victims in this,” he said.
“Two people were viciously murdered and we are still committed to getting to the bottom of this case. We have always believed that the two suspects that were convicted — Mr. Steidl and Mr. Whitlock — were responsible for the death of those two individuals,” Vujovich said.
Kling responded to that, saying:
“The prosecutor can say it is an open case, realistically they have to have evidence and in my opinion, it is a closed case. The state was not willing to do the right thing earlier. It is a long time coming. It is 22 years too late. Herb is innocent,” Kling said.
Bill Clutter, director of investigations for the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said Whitlock and Steidl should have been freed years ago. The Innocence Project helped free both men.
Clutter said much of the evidence that refuted trial testimony and evidence was uncovered in the spring of 1992.
“What this really says is there needs to be further reform in the post-conviction process, because it shouldn’t take this long to exonerate someone,” Clutter said. “The justice system did fail.”
Retired Illinois State Police Lt. Michale Callahan, assigned to take a new look at the case in 2000, concluded Whitlock and Steidl were innocent. He later sued his superiors, claiming he was reassigned in retaliation for accusing prosecutors of not probing for other potential suspects.
Callahan won that suit, which is now on appeal.
“This whole case is a travesty. I think there was a cover-up by the original prosecutors and investigators and has been a cover-up since then by the Illinois State Police when I first came forward with evidence of misconduct in this case,” Callahan said.
One of the witnesses in Whitlock’s case, Darrell Herrington, died last year. Another witness, Debra Reinbolt, a self-admitted drug addict, repeatedly had changed her account of the night when the newlywed couple was murdered.
Callahan said Herrington failed a polygraph “miserably. When I interviewed the polygraph examiner that had conducted it, he told the original investigators that the man was purposely lying and misleading police. He recommended they not use him as a witness and should re-polygraph him.”
Also, Herrington stated said the murderers “were Jim and Ed. They never documented that interview with Darrell Herrington. Two days later, all of a sudden Randy Steidl and Herb Whitlock became the two new suspects,” Callahan said.
That information was not shared in 1987 with original defense attorneys and the Illinois Appellate Court last Sept. 6 found that the state committed violations by suppressing evidence favorable to Whitlock’s defense.
“I think this should be an example that this can happen to anyone in this country if government is allowed to go unchecked,” Callahan said.
Howard Greninger can be reached at (812) 231-4204 or firstname.lastname@example.org.