Randy Steidl: There is no reversing a wrongful execution

  • In this April 5 photo, an exhibit at the Texas Prison Museum shows the three-chemical mixture used by Texas prison officials for lethal injections in the state from 1982 until 2012, when it was replaced by a single drug. AP

  • Randy Steidl spent 12 years on death row for a double murder he didn't commit. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 3/15/2018 12:16:17 AM

I spent 12 years on death row in Illinois for a crime I did not commit. I was finally exonerated in 2008, and have since been fighting to repeal the death penalty across the United States. I was fortunate enough to be exonerated before my execution date. But the circumstances that led to my wrongful conviction are not unique, nor are they are entirely preventable. It is impossible to prevent the death penalty from being used against innocent people. The only guarantee is by repealing this flawed practice.

My story starts in 1986. Three months before the murders for which I would be wrongfully convicted, the man who was convicted alongside me and I went to the FBI and whistle blew on the local prosecutor and two dirty cops for protecting drug distribution, money laundering and gambling. It was that same prosecutor who went on to wrongfully convict my friend and me and pursue the death penalty. Prosecutors wield immense power in the criminal justice system, both for good and bad.

My lawyer had never handled a capital murder case before. I was grateful just to have a lawyer at first. But, I came to learn that capital murder cases are a species of their own. Criminal defense attorneys do incredible work, but few ever handle a capital murder case. Such cases require a unique skill set, and more than that they require experience. I am living proof of all the research that makes clear that death penalty convictions depend on a litany of issues that have nothing to do with whether the defendant is guilty or not, and one of those issues is the experience of the defense attorney.

The state’s case relied on the testimony of two alleged eye-witnesses. Both said they watched me commit the crime. One alleged witness was someone known to the police as suffering from substance abuse and mental health issues. The other alleged witness was someone with five DUIs, three convictions for deceptive practices, and was facing 30 days in jail at the time. Their stories did not align and could never be corroborated, and yet they were still held out as sufficient to convict me. Eye witness testimony is inherently unreliable, and yet it is still used to convict in criminal cases.

When I was first charged, I was told that the death penalty would be taken off the table if I confessed to the crime. I knew I was innocent, but I was advised by my brother to take the deal. I refused. My steadfast commitment to my innocence came at the price of a death sentence. I was lucky to be exonerated in time, but I wonder every day how many people plead guilty under similar circumstances despite their innocence and are now spending life sentences in prison because of it.

At the time of my trial, my son was 9 years old and my daughter was 14. Despite what I myself went through, I still see them as the biggest victims of this story. They had to watch their father be convicted of capital murder, sentenced to death row, and go to school and grow up in the shadow of it all. I often see stories about the family members of crime victims. I wish there was more coverage about the stories of family members of the wrongfully convicted. The trauma, pain and long-term devastation are just as real for them.

I had a corroborated alibi for the time of the crime, and there was zero forensic evidence tying me to the crime scene. I was still convicted. As citizens, we want to believe that our criminal justice system gets it right 100 percent of the time. I myself believed that until the day I was convicted. Even during the trial, there was a part of me that still believed in the system’s ability to get to the truth. I know the real truth now is that there is no guarantee that a conviction achieved in court is right. We hope. But we cannot be sure every time.

Knowing this, as a society, we can choose to keep the death penalty on the books, and live with the risk that others, like me, will be wrongfully convicted. We can hope that they will be exonerated in time. But that is a lot of hope when the price is the execution of the innocent.

Or, as a society, we can say no more. We can end the death penalty, knowing that a person wrongfully convicted to life in prison without parole can be freed from prison. But a person wrongfully executed cannot be.

(Randy Steidl was exonerated after spending 12 years on death row in Illinois.)

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