Thursday, February 7, 2008

Wrongfully Convicted Man Acclimating to Freedom After Release

February 7, 2008

Nazish Dholakia- The Daily Northwestern

Herb Whitlock is trying to adjust to life outside of prison.

Whitlock was wrongfully convicted of murder and spent 20 years in prison. Now, he's thinking about possibly opening up an antique shop. He's learning how to use a cell phone, and he finally got to meet his grandson.

Journalism Prof. David Protess, who headed the project that helped uncover evidence that led to Whitlock's release, said Whitlock just wants to lead a normal life.

About 20 years ago, a jury wrongfully convicted Whitlock of killing a woman living in Paris, Ill. He was released from jail Jan. 8.

"It felt like it had been a long time coming, but it felt like it should have happened a lot sooner," St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Greg Jonsson said.

Jonsson was a Medill senior when he began working on the case in 1999, along with fellow Medill '00 alumni Diane Haag, Kirsten Searer and Krista Larson.

Within a year of a young couple's death, Randy Steidl and Whitlock, both construction workers, had been convicted. Whitlock received life in prison after being convicted of killing Karen Rhoads, and Steidl was convicted of killing both Rhoads and her husband, Dyke Rhoads.

In 2004, Steidl was freed after spending 12 years on death row with the help of Protess and his students. But Whitlock remained in prison until last month.

"It was a wonderful day," Protess said. "It was Herb Whitlock's day."

It began on the first day of Protess' investigative journalism class in September 1999. The journalism professor and founder of the Medill Innocence Project wrote the names of four cases on the board. One of the cases was "Steidl and Whitlock," and four students began their investigation.

Prosecutors argued that the motive was a drug deal gone awry. But Protess' students challenged this motive along with the testimony of two key eyewitnesses and the state's timeline of events.

The students spent almost every weekend of their senior year investigating the case.

"In the best tradition of investigative reporting, they became part of the culture of the town," Protess said. "They became part of Paris, Illinois."

The entire experience affected Protess' perception of justice.

"I learned how fallible the justice system is," Protess said. "While we may have one of the best criminal justice systems in the world, it's run by people, and people make mistakes. I had no idea how pervasive those mistakes were."

Haag, now the religion editor for the Shreveport Times in Shreveport, La., said she was frustrated by the slow process.

"I learned not to give up hope," she said. "I think at times I was very tempted to say it would never happen, especially after eight years. I learned that you have to be patient."

Protess said he wanted to start the Medill Innocence Project after working on another high-profile wrongful conviction. It took him eight years to launch the project. Since then, the project has freed 11 men, five of whom were on death row.

"It was an amazing experience as a young journalist to be able to work on this," Haag said. "The lessons you learn from having to ask those hard questions are invaluable."

Phone calls made to Whitlock's lawyers were not immediately returned.

Whitlock is declining interviews because he wants to return to leading a normal life, Jonsson said.

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