I survived Illinois’ death penalty. I’m living proof why it needs to end.
I was the victim of the system needing a scapegoat for the tragic murders of the Rhoads family in 1986 in central Illinois. I was convicted on no evidence and sentenced to death, then spent 12 years on death row before the Center on Wrongful Convictions helped prove my innocence.
I was changed forever, but fortunately lived to tell my story in the hope that no one else has to go through what I did. And the only way to make sure of that is to repeal the death penalty. The costs are simply too great.
Illinois’ capital punishment system is broken. Executions were put on hold a decade ago and that hold remains in place because the flaws have not been fixed. Systemic reforms cannot eliminate the risk of an ultimate horror — the execution of an innocent person.
An independent poll this spring found that more than 60 percent of voters prefer a punishment other than death for murder. And a majority of those polled were unaware capital punishment is still an option in Illinois, much less a viable sentencing outcome. The death penalty has fallen so far out of the public’s mindset, this poll found, that it’s clear it has run its course.
There’s a growing understanding that the death penalty is too costly for Illinois. As an innocent man sentenced to die here in this state, I’ve seen firsthand the toll capital punishment has taken over the past decade.
In addition to me, Illinois has sent 19 other men to death row who were later released due to evidence of their innocence. That is the nation’s second-highest wrongful conviction rate and undeniable proof that the system is broken. Those men and their families were devastated by the death penalty. I know. I was one of them. Despite our best efforts, we cannot guarantee we will not sentence an innocent person to death.
What is even scarier to me is that this system remains so inaccurate despite sucking up major financial resources. Illinois spends at least $12 million a year to prosecute and administer death penalty cases. Since 2003, more than $100 million has been spent on costs for the Capital Litigation Trust Fund to handle death penalty cases. There haven’t been any executions as a result of these millions, but there have been more mistakes. Just last year, another innocent man was found on our death row. That is government waste at its most extreme. The state’s budget problems are infamous and those are millions and millions of dollars that could be spent elsewhere to protect victims and enhance law enforcement.
Illinoisans get it. When told about the millions of dollars in wasted death penalty expenses, voters responded in the poll that they preferred life in prison without parole by a more than 2-to-1 margin over the death penalty. The costs just can’t be justified when lives like mine are on the line. And in this budget crisis, every dime has to count in state government.
I know that policy-makers in Springfield had the right intentions when they spent so many years trying to improve the system and protect innocent people like me. But the death penalty has paralyzed our Statehouse. As long as it exists, they will have to remember my story and keep working to reform a system that cannot be reformed.
Real reform won’t come until the death penalty is silenced for good.
Ending the death penalty isn’t about being tough or soft on crime. It is being smart on crime. Stand with me and end the chaos and waste. Together, we can turn my personal tragedy into our collective triumph.
Randy Steidl spent more than 17 years wrongfully in prison — including a dozen years on death row — for the 1986 murders of Dyke and Karen Rhoads in Paris, Ill. He now works to end the death penalty to spare other innocent people from being convicted and condemned by a broken system.
Originally published on SJ-R.COM