SPRINGFIELD – On January 8 Herbert Whitlock is expected to walk out of an Edgar County courtroom a free man after spending over 20 years in prison for a murder many believe he did not commit. Prosecutors on Friday filed a motion to dismiss his case.
Richard Kling, Whitlock's attorney, expressed appreciation for the work of the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois at Springfield. "I'm eternally grateful to the UIS Innocence Project."
Whitlock's conviction and life sentence for the 1986 murder of Dyke and Karen Rhoads was overturnedby Illinois' 4th District Court of Appeals on September 6. That conviction had been based on perjured testimony of two people who claimed to have been eyewitnesses to the crime.
In its decision to reverse, the Court's opinion cited the investigation of the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project, in which UIS students working with Bill Clutter, director of investigations, uncovered laboratory notes of a forensic scientist that helped to discredit a key witness' testimony. Clutter's investigation also discovered a polygraph report indicating that the witness had made false statements to the police. The appellate court held that the failure of the State to produce the lab notes and polygraph reports resulted in the suppression of evidence that was favorable to Whitlock's defense and violated his right to a fair trial.
Erica Nichols, now a second-year law student at Drake University, was one of the UIS students who assisted Clutter in the investigation. "As a student it was disheartening to witness the failure of our legal system. It is also disappointing that Edgar County has dragged its feet in this matter and delayed Herb's release. I'm relieved to hear Herb is now free," said Nichols.
Nichols, who worked as paralegal for a Springfield law firm while attending UIS, said the experience of working with the Innocence Project motivated her to become a lawyer.
Whitlock's co-defendant, Randy Steidl, received a death sentence but was freed in May 2004 after an investigation by Clutter, working with Springfield attorney Michael Metnick, developed forensic evidence that discredited supposed eyewitness testimony and led U.S. District Court Judge Michael P. McCuskey to order Steidl's release.
In April 2000, the director of the Illinois State Police ordered a review of the case based on a request by Clutter to examine new evidence exonerating Whitlock and Steidl. Michale Callahan, then commander of investigations for ISP District 10, was assigned to review the case. Callahan concluded that Steidl and Whitlock had been wrongfully convicted.
In 2005, Callahan successfully sued his superiors in federal court after he was re-assigned to supervise traffic enforcement and told that he could not pursue an investigation of other suspects.
The case was twice featured on the CBS television program 48 Hours Mystery.
For more information about the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project, contact Bill Clutter at 217/899-4353. Erica Nichols can be reached at 217/725-6499.