When New Mexico abolished the death penalty in 2009 and the Illinois Legislature voted to do so this year, former Death Row inmate Randy Steidl was there, helping to persuade lawmakers to vote against capital punishment.
Steidl, who was freed from prison in 2004 after 17 years behind bars for a 1986 Downstate double murder, exudes an aura of sincerity that makes him an effective ambassador for death penalty abolition. He's also brought his message to Connecticut, Colorado and Maryland.
But it was a close thing. Illinois was very nearly denied Steidl's voice.
Steidl already had been convicted on flimsy evidence and his appeal had been denied when a Downstate lawyer who grew up in Chicago - Michael Metnick - took on the case pro bono.
Metnick earlier had represented Death Row inmate Alejandro Hernandez (freed in 1995), so he knew what a tough job he was getting into.
And it was an uphill climb from the start. Because Steidl's appeal already had been denied, Metnick had to pursue a separate legal strategy called a post-conviction petition. That hit a wall when the judge refused to grant an evidentiary hearing - the only way to bring new evidence into the case.
At that point, "it didn't look good," Metnick says now.
Metnick appealed the ruling. Eventually, he got his first big break - a favorable unanimous ruling from the Illinois Supreme Court that allowed the evidentiary hearing to go forward.
All kinds of new evidence came out at the hearing - ranging from testimony that the supposed murder weapon could not have caused the wounds to the revelation that the state's star witness had been paid $2,500. But the judge, while overturning the death sentence, refused to grant Steidl a new trial. So he still was facing life in prison.
That required another round of appeals until Steidl finally was freed.
Metnick said he isn't surprised that Steidl has been invited around the country to talk about the death penalty.
"One of the things that I said to friends soon after he was out [was that] this is the person who should be the poster boy for wrongful convictions," Metnick says.
Metnick is quick to grant credit to others: lawyers Andrea Lyon, Marlene Kamish and Jane Raley of the old Capital Resource Center, who urged him to take on the case; Bill Clutter, who helped to investigate it; and lawyer Larry Marshall, whose successful habeas petition helped lead to Steidl's freedom.
But Steidl doesn't want Metnick's contributions overlooked.
"He fought for me for 20 years," says Steidl, who has a wrongful prosecution case pending. "The guy is a saint."
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