Dr. Stephen Mergner, Chair of the Department of Political Science, worked with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty to bring Randy Steidl, an exonerated death row inmate, to speak at Georgetown College. Mr. Steidl came to campus on November 29 and spoke to students about his experiences with the legal system. An article on the event that appeared in The Georgetown News-Graphic follows:
Former death row inmate speaks with Georgetown College students about case, struggles
By Nancy Royden
Georgetown College students and others learned first-hand Thursday about the difficult experiences and struggles death row exoneree Randy Steidl faced.
“I went to trial in 97 days. By day 2, I realized I didn’t have a chance,” he said during a lecture.
Steidl was on death row for 17 years for a crime he did not commit. One veteran cop and a group of dedicated journalism students succeeded where the system failed, he told the students and others in the room.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty sponsored the lecture, and Dr. Stephen Mergner, chairman of the college’s department of political science, said the ACLU reached out to him about the possibility of Steidl’s visit.
Understanding how the legal system can work, or fail, should be an important facet of preparing the students for the careers they will have in a year, or a few years from now, Mergner said.
“It is the mission of Georgetown to prepare the future leaders of tomorrow. Our students will soon find themselves in the position of power that will necessitate them weighing their personal convictions against the realities of life. It is essential that they take this opportunity to witness firsthand the consequences of legal errors,” he said via e-mail.
Steidl, now president of the board of directors for Witness to Innocence, said he and his co-defendant were convicted for the 1986 murder of newlywed couple Dyke and Karen Rhoads in the small town of Paris, Ill. They maintained their innocence, but not until journalism students at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. became involved did the case receive proper review, Steidl said.
“I grew up trusting authority,” he said. “I had a rude awakening.”
Being on death row can be a terrifying experience. Steidl told the group, “You can’t sink any further than this.”
Going up and down an emotional roller coaster was a way of life, Steidl said.
Some of those who have been put to death through capital punishment were later discovered to have been innocent, he said.
“You can release an innocent man from prison, but you can’t release him from the grave,” Steidl said.
On the Witness to Innocence’s website, Steidl is pictured wearing a T-shirt stating he was “convicted and condemned by perjured testimony, fabricated evidence, prosecutorial misconduct, police coercion and rewards.”
After years of fighting for his freedom, Steidl said he has little faith in the justice system, but now works to help others gain liberty when it is appropriate.
“No human is perfect. Why people believe the judicial system is perfect is beyond me,” he said.
Once someone is set free from prison, life can be have other challenges he or she did not face previously.
“There’s no mental health care. There’s no job training. There’s nothing,” Steidl said.
The death penalty has no place in a civilized society, he said, and encouraged the students, “Whatever you do, do it with integrity.”
Kate Miller, of the ACLU of Kentucky, spoke with the students before Steidl’s lecture. She said if anyone wanted to sign a postcard that is being sent to Gov. Steve Beshear in favor of abolishing the death penalty, they were welcome to do so.
“We know so much more today about the death penalty than we did in 1976, when Kentucky reinstated it,” the postcard states. “More than three decades of experience reveals that it is a risky, arbitrary, unfair, ineffective and costly distraction from justice.”
The death penalty system is broken; that is why 17 states, including West Virginia, and just recently, New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois and Connecticut have rejected capital punishment, the card continues.
Only weeks before Steidl’s visit to Georgetown College, the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights called on state lawmakers to abolish the death penalty, and less than a year ago, a team of legal experts completed a 400-page report outlining the serious flaws within the commonwealth’s death penalty system, according to the ACLU of Kentucky.