Did you know there's an "innocence industry" in Chicago? It's a "conglomeration of defense lawyers, investigators, a major Chicago-based university (Northwestern), . . . media outlets," and other assorted players. Its product is innocence—or at least the appearance of innocence—extracted from the convictions of men who may or may not be guilty.
That's the hypothesis of a website with the unlikely name What Really Happened in Paris, (Illinois). What happened there, in 1986, was that a young local couple, newlyweds Dyke and Karen Rhoads, were found stabbed to death in their home, which subsequently had been set on fire. Two local men with police records, Randy Steidl and Herb Whitlock, were arrested, tried, and convicted of murder—the prosecution's theory being that they turned to violence when a drug deal with Dyke Rhoads went south. But eventually both convictions were overturned. Steidl was released from prison by a federal judge in 2004, Whitlock by a state judge in 2008. Both sued the city of Paris, Edgar County, and state authorities for wrongful conviction. Whitlock settled for an undisclosed sum and Steidl has been awarded about $6 million. In addition, Steidl asked for a pardon; former governor Rod Blagojevich didn't respond to Steidl's petition, nor has Governor Pat Quinn.
In other words, what really happened in Paris, Illinois, remains a mystery. Michale Callahan, then a lieutenant with the Illinois State Police, which had spearheaded the murder investigation, was asked by the ISP to review the file when the CBS news program 48 Hours came calling in 2000. Expected to do no more than make sure the state police were ready with answers to the network's questions, Callahan instead concluded Steidl and Whitlock had been railroaded, and he made sure everyone knew it. "How many times did you try to get this case reopened?" 48 Hours would ask him when they returned to the story in 2005. "Officially, to Springfield, five times," Callahan replied. He was transferred from investigations to patrol in 2003 after refusing to back off, and in 2005 he retired. In 2009 he published a book about the case, Too Politically Sensitive.
Karen Rhoads happened to be employed by Robert Morgan, a local businessman described by 48 Hours as a "big campaign contributor to some very high-powered Illinois politicians." According to Callahan's book, investigators heard from relatives of the Rhoads that Karen happened to spot machine guns in an open trunk in the parking lot of Morgan's pet food processing plant; Morgan, who was standing there, allegedly told her, "You shouldn't have seen this."
48 Hours asked Callahan: "What Karen said she saw in the parking lot made her afraid, according to her family and friends, who say she was thinking about quitting her job."
Callahan replied: "Basically, she knew too much."
Morgan was a suspect from day two, Callahan tells me, but state police didn't follow up. According to his book, when he persisted in asking why, a "conspiracy of . . . liars at the top of the ISP hierarchy" turned on him. "Together the state and Bob Morgan's public relations man pathetically planned strategies to try and bait me into a lawsuit, conduct surreptitious tape recordings of me, hired private investigators to discredit me and spread false and vicious rumors that my wife and I frequented 'sexclubs.'"
Morgan's PR man was a former Daily Herald reporter named Dan Curry. Morgan hired Curry as a consultant for $8,000 a month in 2005, when 48 Hours was preparing the second of its three reports on the Paris murders (the others ran in 2001 and 2008). "He was sick and tired of being involved in that case," Curry explains today, letting me know Morgan eventually passed a polygraph test. "He was getting slaughtered in the media. Everybody was pointing a finger at the guy."
Back in the 90s, Curry was press spokesman for then attorney general of Illinois Jim Ryan. That's where he met John Pearman, who at the time was a lawyer on Ryan's staff. Today Curry and Pearman run the PR firm Reverse Spin, billing themselves as "game changers" who know how to tackle PR challenges that "defy traditional solutions." And they're coproprietors of WhatReallyHappenedInParis.com.
On October 16, Governor Quinn received a letter from Northwestern's Center on Wrongful Convictions—a key player in the "innocence industry" Curry and Pearman are tackling. The letter, urging Quinn to grant the pardon Steidl had first asked for 11 years earlier, noted the support Steidl has received from the media, including a Tribune editorial back in 2006 that said "everything in this case does, indeed, point to Steidl's innocence."
Two days later Curry and Pearman responded with a post on WhatReallyHappenedInParis.com by Curry titled "The nerve of Northwestern." Curry accused the university of "playing a high stakes game with its reputation" by taking Steidl's side "and I guess counting on its allies in the media to have its back." He also suggested that Northwestern needed to be more careful about the company it kept. Did the university really want to be sharing another cause with its controversial former executive director of the Medill Innocence Project, David Protess?
Protess and his student "journalists" (the quotes are Curry's) drew national attention to the Rhoadses' murders and were prominently featured in the 48 Hours reports. But what's happened to Protess lately? He "left the university under a cloud of controversy in 2011 over his ethics in another case," noted Curry, who reasoned: "You would think Northwestern might want to take a step back and examine other cases handled by Protess instead of plowing forward with the Steidl letter this week."
To Curry and fellow foes of the innocence industry, Protess's troubles with Northwestern are the gift that keeps on giving. Most notably, there's the headway attorneys recently made in the crusade to recriminalize Anthony Porter—the innocence industry's cornerstone cause. Protess's Innocence Project made its bones when Porter, after 16 years on death row for a double murder, walked out of prison exonerated in 1999. Porter's deliverance inspired then governor George Ryan to suspend the death penalty in Illinois; eventually it was abolished altogether.
Protess's team not only cleared Porter's name but offered a new perp in his place: Alstory Simon. But even though Simon confessed, his attorneys have insisted for years that the confession was coerced and that Porter was guilty all along. On October 8, Simon's attorneys sent a letter to State's Attorney Anita Alvarez advising her that Simon's confession "was illegally coerced by fabricated evidence, threats of the death penalty, and promises of riches." The lawyers also reminded her—not that she'd forgotten—of the "substantial evidence developed by your office" demonstrating Protess's use of "illegal coercive tactics to extract favorable testimony."
The other day Alvarez—Protess's bête noir—told her office to look into the possibility that Simon is actually innocent and Porter was guilty all along. And now Curry—on behalf of Morgan—is bringing the Porter/Simon debate to to bear on the very different circumstances surrounding Steidl's hopeful pardon in the Rhoads murders. "When I say Northwestern might be counting on its media allies to have its back," Curry's post lecturing the university concluded, "consider the coverage it received for its call for the Steidl pardon this week." He contrasted the media's favorable coverage of Steidl's hopeful pardon to the "complete lack of coverage the Alstory Simon letter has received so far."
I first wrote about Dan Curry in 1995, right after the Tribune published an editorial that said no one involved in the prosecution of convicted killer Rolando Cruz "deserves ever again to enjoy a position of public honor or trust. They have demonstrated that they have no honor and they merit no trust." Cruz, twice convicted and sentenced to death in the 1983 murder of ten-year-old Jeanine Nicarico in DuPage County, had just been cleared by a disgusted judge who denounced the relentless campaign to keep Cruz shackled. Curry's boss in 1995, attorney general Ryan, had been state's attorney during Cruz's first two trials, and when the state supreme court threw out the second conviction Ryan announced that he'd try him a third time.
Curry called to stand by his man and dump on Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, who'd been championing Cruz for years. "He's making some very serious allegations that the prosecutors are railroading an innocent man," Curry said at the time. He told me Zorn had a duty "to get the other side."
Zorn was right and Ryan (and Curry) were wrong, but today Curry still stands by his man. "He acted with integrity and did what he thought was correct," he tells me.
Just as former ISP investigator Callahan is careful not to accuse the politically influential Morgan of any role in the Rhoads murders, saying simply that he deserved scrutiny he didn't get, Curry and Pearman do not accuse Steidl and Whitlock. "I'm not saying Steidl's guilty," Curry told me. "I've never said Steidl's guilty."
But if that's the case, I asked him, why do you care one way or the other if Steidl gets pardoned in the deaths of Karen and Dyke Rhoads?
Curry was franker than I thought he'd be: "Why does it matter? Because of all these false allegations leveled against Bob Morgan. If Randy Steidl gets an official declaration of innocence by the state of Illinois, because of the narrative already set up, it directly points the finger at Bob Morgan."
Keeping Steidl under a cloud of suspicion protects Morgan. If that isn't a good enough reason from Steidl's point of view, well, he isn't the client.