SPRINGFIELD – Students and staff of the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois at Springfield were instrumental in uncovering new evidence that helped win a new trial for Herbert Whitlock, currently serving a life sentence for the 1986 murder of Dyke and Karen Rhoads. An appeal filed by Whitlock's attorneys seeking a new trial was granted by Illinois' 4th District Court of Appeals on September 6.
Whitlock was represented pro bono in his appeal by Richard Kling and Susanna Ortiz from the Kent College of Law. Kling and Ortiz were assisted in the post-conviction investigation by students in Wrongful Convictions class taught by UIS Professor Larry Golden.
Under the direction of Bill Clutter, director of investigations for the Innocence Project, the UIS students interviewed witnesses and helped prepare for the evidentiary hearing that was conducted over several weeks in March and April 2005.
In its decision granting the new trial, the appellate court ruled that Whitlock had received ineffective representation at his first trial and that the prosecutor had suppressed evidence favorable to Whitlock's defense.
The students working with Clutter uncovered laboratory notes of a forensic scientist that helped to discredit a key witness who testified in Whitlock's trial in 1987. The court held that the failure of the State to produce the lab notes resulted in the suppression of evidence that was favorable to Whitlock's defense and violated his right to a fair trial.
Clutter had also worked to develop forensic evidence involving a broken lamp that was used earlier in successful efforts to free Whitlock's co-defendant, Randy Steidl, from death row.
During the original trial, a witness testified that she saw a broken lamp inside the Rhoads' bedroom as Whitlock and Steidl allegedly took turns stabbing the couple. However, it was later proved that the lamp was intact at the time of the murders and was not broken until after a subsequent fire had been put out. Due in large part to this evidence, Steidl was released from prison in 2004.
The Downstate Illinois Innocence Project is affiliated with the Institute for Legal and Policy Studies at UIS and has been involved in the cases of numerous individuals, including Keith Harris and Julie Rea Harper, who have been wrongfully convicted. The project uses students to assist Clutter in the investigation of cases that may involve actual innocence and is supported by private grants and contributions.For more information about the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project, contact Clutter at 899-4353.