Gov. Pat Quinn is the first Illinois governor in almost four decades to have given no pardons based on actual innocence.
Rod Blagojevich, George Ryan, Jim Edgar and James R. Thompson all got out their pardon pens for innocent people. But Quinn, in his fifth year as governor, has not.
The case of Gordon “Randy” Steidl would be a good place for him to start. Steidl spent 12 years on Death Row and five more in prison for a 1986 double murder he didn’t commit. Since then, he has been a leader nationally in helping state legislatures understand the perils of the death penalty. But Quinn is the third governor from whom Steidl has a requested a pardon without hearing anything back but silence.
A Quinn spokesman said the governor has acted on 2,923 requests for clemency while working through a backlog of 2,500 requests left by Blagojevich. But Steidl’s name was not among them. Steidl also had the option of seeking expungement through the courts, but that would have meant going back to the same Edgar County Circuit Court that convicted him, and anyway, the two-year deadline for filing expired four years ago. Moreover, he wants a pardon from “the highest office in Illinois.”
Today, Steidl is chairman of a group called Witness to Innocence, which seeks to discourage the death penalty in the United States by giving a voice to exonerated Death Row survivors. As various states have considered abolishing the death penalty, Steidl has helped present the human side of the devastation wrought by wrongful convictions.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, says Witness to Innocence has made a significant impact in state after state, as people once facing execution help lawmakers understand the horror of flaws in a legal system that can lead to the innocent being put to death. In fact, the work of Steidl and his group is a big part of the change from the 1990s, when popular support for the death penalty was ascending, to today’s climate, in which executions are down and many states are turning to alternatives.
Yet in Steidl’s home state, his request for a pardon and a clean record goes nowhere.
That’s unfortunate, given the important role Steidl played in helping Illinois make its own decision to abolish the death penalty in 2011. Before that, courts in Illinois came shockingly close to executing innocent men in many cases. Steidl helped our state close that extremely disturbing chapter.
Recent botched executions in Arizona and Ohio have rekindled debate over the death penalty. In Arizona, an inmate injected with lethal drugs recently gasped for more than 90 minutes before dying. In Ohio, an inmate took 30 minutes to die. States that still perform lethal injections are scrambling to find new combinations of drugs.
Illinois has been spared such trauma in part because of the work of Randy Steidl. All he’s asking in return is a pardon that clears the Steidl name, something he wants both for himself and his family, including his grandchildren.