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09/18/97 PEOPLE STATE ILLINOIS v. GORDON "RANDY"

September 18, 1997

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, APPELLEE,
v.
GORDON "RANDY" STEIDL, APPELLANT.



The Honorable Justice Heiple delivered the opinion of the court:.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Heiple

The Honorable Justice HEIPLE delivered the opinion of the court:

Defendant, Gordon "Randy" Steidl, and codefendant, Herbert Whitlock, were indicted for the murders of Dyke and Karen Rhoads. Defendant's case was severed from Whitlock's. Following a jury trial, defendant was found guilty of both murders. The jury found defendant eligible for the death penalty and that there were no mitigating factors sufficient to preclude a sentence of death. Defendant was sentenced to death and his sentence and conviction were upheld by this court on direct appeal. People v. Steidl, 142 Ill. 2d 204, 154 Ill. Dec. 616, 568 N.E.2d 837 (1991).

Defendant subsequently filed a petition for post-judgment relief under section 2-1401 of the Civil Practice Law (735 ILCS 5/2-1401 (West 1994)) based on recantations of testimony by two key State witnesses. The section 2-1401 petition was denied when the witnesses withdrew their recantations at the hearing. Plaintiff then filed a petition under the Post-Conviction Hearing Act (725 ILCS 5/122-1 et seq. (West 1994)). The petition was later amended. During the proceedings on the amended post-conviction petition, defendant filed three motions for substitution of judge. All three motions were denied, and the court subsequently dismissed the post-conviction petition without an evidentiary hearing.

Defendant now appeals the denial of his amended post-conviction petition without an evidentiary hearing, arguing that he has presented substantial evidence to establish that he received ineffective assistance of counsel at trial and at the sentencing hearing. He further contends that the trial court erred when it denied his motions for substitution of judge. For the reasons detailed below, we reverse and remand for an evidentiary hearing on defendant's post-conviction petition in front of a newly substituted judge.

BACKGROUND

At 4:39 a.m. on July 6, 1986, firefighters responded to the report of a fire at a house in Paris, Illinois. The firefighters found that the fire had been set in two separate locations in the home. Although the fire had destroyed much of the downstairs area, the upstairs had received mostly smoke damage. The firefighters discovered the naked bodies of Dyke and Karen Rhoads in an upstairs bedroom. Dyke was lying on the floor near the bedroom door and had been stabbed 28 times. His fatal wound was below the left armpit and was six inches deep. Karen was on the floor near the foot of the bed with a pillow covering her face, and had been stabbed 26 times. She had two possibly fatal wounds, one under her right armpit, the other in her chest. The former was also six inches deep. None of the physical evidence found at the scene was linked to the defendant.

The State offered two key witnesses at trial, Deborah Rienbolt and Darrell Herrington. Rienbolt testified that she was a drug addict and alcoholic, and that she knew defendant and Whitlock from around town and from drug dealing. Rienbolt testified that approximately one month before the murders she had heard defendant and Whitlock talking to Dyke Rhoads about drug deals and that she had accompanied Whitlock to the Rhoads house a few times. During the visits, Rienbolt remained outside while Whitlock spoke to Dyke Rhoads about drugs.

Rienbolt further testified that on the morning of July 5, 1986, she was at a bar called Jeanie's Place, where she overheard a conversation between Whitlock and Dyke Rhoads. Dyke wanted out of a drug deal and gave Whitlock some money toward this end. Whitlock told Dyke that it was not that easy to get out. That afternoon Rienbolt decided not to go to work. She either had a coworker punch her in or punched herself in and then left. Rienbolt then borrowed a car from a friend and drove to the house of another friend, Barbara Furry. She and Furry smoked marijuana. Around 8:30 that evening, Rienbolt went to a local bar called the Tap Room, where she encountered the defendant, Whitlock, Herrington, and an unidentified man.

Rienbolt further testified that, later that night, she went to the American Legion, possibly with Barbara Furry, but stayed outside until closing time at midnight. At closing, defendant, Whitlock, Herrington, and the unidentified man exited the Legion. Whitlock approached Rienbolt and asked her for a hunting knife that belonged to her husband, which she had brought with her in response to Whitlock's earlier requests for the knife. Rienbolt gave Whitlock the knife. Whitlock told her that he had some business to take care of, mentioning Dyke Rhoads and drug deals. Rienbolt then proceeded alone to the Rhoads residence, where she observed defendant's car parked next to the house. She entered the house through the back door and went upstairs to a bedroom. Upon entering the bedroom, she noticed a broken lamp in the room, a piece of which somebody was holding. Dyke and Karen Rhoads were in the bedroom, as were defendant and Whitlock. Defendant and Whitlock stopped Dyke Rhoads as he stumbled to the doorway. Defendant and Whitlock began stabbing Dyke with the knife Rienbolt had given Whitlock. Meanwhile Rienbolt held Karen down. She continued to hold Karen as defendant and Whitlock stabbed Karen. Rienbolt testified that everything "got real fuzzy at that point," but she did remember the position of the bodies in the room. She also recalled a fire. Rienbolt testified that Whitlock returned her knife later that morning and that she cleaned it by soaking it in hot water and picking the blood out of the crevices. A subsequent forensic examination of the knife revealed no traces of blood, although animal hairs were found.

In February 1987, Rienbolt made the first of several statements to the police. The events surrounding the murders in Rienbolt's statements varied, but she admitted more involvement in the murders with each successive statement. In April 1987, Rienbolt entered into a plea agreement whereby she pled guilty to concealment of a homicidal death in exchange for a five-year prison sentence.

Herrington testified that he was an alcoholic and that on July 5, 1986, he drank continuously from noon until midnight. He testified that he was with defendant and Whitlock at the Tap Room and the American Legion the evening of July 5. When the American Legion closed, he asked defendant for a ride home. Defendant agreed, but drove with him and Whitlock to the Rhoads house first. Herrington slept in the car while defendant and Whitlock went inside the house. Herrington was awakened by a sound and used a credit card to open the locked back door. He heard a woman scream, and inside the house he encountered defendant holding a knife. Herrington left the house. Whitlock later came outside and drove off. Herrington went back inside the house, going upstairs into the bedroom. There he observed the bodies of Dyke and Karen Rhoads. Herrington picked up a pillow and threw it on Karen's face. Defendant told Herrington that he would suffer the same fate if he told anyone what had happened. Soon thereafter Whitlock returned with gallon jugs. Defendant threatened Herrington again and told him to leave. Herrington then ran for home. He testified that he saw no one other than himself, defendant, Whitlock, and the victims at the Rhoads residence.

Defendant testified that at about 9:30 p.m. on July 5 he was at the Barn Tavern with Nanette Klein, Christy Ferris, and Dennis Ouzleman. Around 10:30 p.m. he left the Barn Tavern and went to the American Legion by himself. At approximately 12:15 a.m. he left the American Legion alone, dropped his car off at his apartment, and walked to the Horseshoe Tavern, where he met up with Klein, Ferris, and Ouzleman. After about 15 minutes, at around 12:50 a.m., the group left and returned to Ouzleman's apartment, which was in the same building as defendant's apartment. The four then smoked some marijuana. Defendant and Ferris subsequently returned to defendant's apartment, where they both remained until approximately 3 a.m., at which time defendant left to mail his unemployment forms to insure the timely arrival of his unemployment check. On his way out, defendant encountered Klein in the yard and told her what he was doing. When defendant returned to the apartment about five minutes later, Klein and Ferris left. Defendant went to bed and slept until 11:30 that morning.

ANALYSIS

A proceeding brought under the Post-Conviction Act is a collateral attack on a judgment of conviction. The inquiry in a post-conviction petition is limited to allegations of constitutional violations that were not and could not have been raised previously. People v. Eddmonds, 143 Ill. 2d 501, 510, 161 Ill. Dec. 306, 578 N.E.2d 952 (1991). The petitioner is entitled to an evidentiary hearing only upon making a substantial showing that he suffered a substantial deprivation of constitutional rights. People v. Coleman, 168 Ill. 2d 509, 537, 214 Ill. Dec. 212, 660 N.E.2d 919 (1995). In making that determination, all well-pleaded facts in the petition and any accompanying affidavits are taken as true. People v. Caballero, 126 Ill. 2d 248, 259, 128 Ill. Dec. 1, 533 N.E.2d 1089 (1989). The determinations of the trial court, however, will not be disturbed absent manifest error. People v. Franklin, 167 Ill. 2d 1, 9, 212 Ill. Dec. 153, 656 N.E.2d 750 (1995).

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Defendant's claims of ineffective assistance of counsel fall into two general areas: (1) failure to conduct an investigation and to impeach the State's key witness at trial; and (2) failure to prepare and present evidence in mitigation at the sentencing hearing. Defendant maintains that the ...


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