When Randy Steidl was standing trial in Edgar County Circuit Court in Illinois, he likened it to sitting on hot coals and not being allowed to scream. He was on trial for the brutal murder of a newly wed couple in the small town of Paris. Just months after the wedding of Karen and Dyke Rhoads, their charred bodies, punctured with stab wounds, were recovered from their burned-down home. It was described as drug deal gone bad.
"You're watching a prosecutor put on a drug addict that points the finger at you, and you know you're innocent but you have to sit there and let them lie to the jury," Steidl recalled during an interview this week. "All in all, it's a surreal situation. It's like you're not even there. Like you're watching a film."
During the trial, two alcoholics, one of whom was also addicted to drugs, pointed their fingers at Steidl, a 35-year-old construction worker with several assault convictions, and Herb Whitlock, a 41-year-old who also worked in construction. Years later, the two witnesses would recant their statements, but not soon enough. In 1987, Steidl, who maintained his innocence throughout the trial, was sentenced to death. The same thing happened to Whitlock.
Seventeen years, three months and three weeks later, Steidl was released from prison on May 28, 2004, when numerous flaws -- procedural errors, a lack of evidence and the lying witnesses -- were finally accepted by the higher courts.
Since then, he's been touring the country and sharing his experience, hoping to educate people about potential flaws in imposing the death penalty. That tour will bring Steidl to Westport on Sunday, when he will speak at 12:30 p.m. in the Unitarian Church, 10 Lyons Road.
"If I didn't have this venue my anger and my rage would just eat me up," Steidl said. "I'd probably be on somebody's couch paying them a $100 an hour" to listen to his problems.
For nearly two decades, the father of two spent almost all his time cooped up in a cell, knowing that he was innocent but unable to do anything about it. Life outside prison was passing him by and a lethal injection loomed over his future. During numerous appeals of his sentence, Steidl saw the pain in the murder victims' families. Each appeal, and there were several, was like a wound being opened for them once again.
"You really get to know yourself because you're locked in a cage for 23 hours a day," he said. "If I didn't have the support of my mother and my family I probably wouldn't have made it because you have to keep your mind and your body exercised."
In 2009, a bill was passed to put an end to the death penalty in Connecticut, but it was ultimately vetoed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who said that penalty should be reserved for the most heinous of crimes. The bill would have replaced the death penalty with a life sentence with no chance of parole.
The crime at the forefront of the state's capital punishment debate is the 2007 Cheshire home invasion where a mother and her two daughters were murdered. The last prisoner execution in Connecticut was carried out in 2005. That prisoner, Michael Ross, a convicted serial killer, was the first person put to death in New England in 45 years. Ten death row inmates in the state are awaiting lethal injection.
Steidl eventually had his sentence reduced from the death penalty to life without parole. To him, life without parole is an even worse punishment.
"After a couple of years on life without parole, had they rolled that gurney by and said, ... `Do you want to end the suffering?' believe me, I would have buckled myself on that gurney," he said. "Life without parole, whether you're innocent or guilty, is very harsh."
In this election year, the issue of the death penalty has been among the issues debated by candidates for statewide office. Several Democrat gubernatorial candidates oppose the death penalty, with Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi saying it should be kept as a deterrent for the worst crimes. The leading Republican candidates for governor share a similar view.
To Steidl, it's not a Democratic or Republican issue. It's an issue of humanity.
"For any candidate or politician to politicize the issue of the death penalty is simply wrong," he said. "Anybody that would educate themselves on capital punishment would see the system does not work.
"It's too costly and you put innocent people on death row," he added. "I'm one of 139 others [exonerated in the United States], and we're the lucky ones. We don't know how many others there were."
Steidl will speak at the Unitarian Church as part of the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty. When he was released from prison, he heard of similar advocacy groups but was leery of joining the movement.
"At first I was reluctant to get involved with a bunch of ex-convicts, as you can imagine. After 17 years in jail I wanted to get away from it all," he said.
In 2005, he hesitantly met with about 18 people in the Witness to Innocence organization who were fighting the death penalty. They were like him: wrongly convicted and forced to spend a span of their life in a jail cell.
"I could see that look in their eyes, the pain that they felt, was the same I had when looked in the mirror every day," he said. "I understand that pain and where they were coming from and I felt camaraderie with them."
Steidl has been working part-time on such tours across the nation. Much of his time since leaving prison has simply been readjusting.
"It's like being reborn again. I didn't know how to pump gas. I didn't know how to use a cell phone or an ATM card," he said. "I had no clue. I had never even seen a computer in my life.
Meanwhile, that day he was released is still in his mind. Four years later, Whitlock was also released. The first thing Steidl did after gaining freedom was grab a bite to eat with friends, family and the people who helped him get out of prison.
"I went from the big house to the steakhouse," he said.