CHICAGO (CBS) — Forty-five faces and stories line the walls of the Gage Gallery inside Roosevelt University, 14 S. Michigan Ave.
“The Innocents: Headshots” features 45 men and women who were wrongly convicted and eventually exonerated.
“I can see the pain in their faces,” said Randy Steidl, convicted in 1986 of a brutal double murder in Paris, Ill.
“There was no physical or forensic evidence tying me to the crime and I had a solid alibi, an alibi that still stands today.”
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“I went to trial in 97 days, I got convicted in nine days,” he said.
Two unreliable witnesses sealed his fate. Those witnesses would later recant and then recant the recantation.
“Both took the stand and pointed the finger at me and said I was the one who did it. How do you defend yourself when someone points at you like that?” Steidl said.
He spent 12 years on death row trying to prove his innocence. After losing every state appeal and two execution dates, he was exonerated by a federal judge in 2004.
“If it had not be the errors of my trial counsel and if he would’ve presented the evidence available, I would’ve been acquitted,” Steidl said.
He shared his experiences to students and patrons at the exhibit’s opening.
Steidl is a member of Witness to Innocence, a non profit based in Philadelphia. He says it’s important to tell people about the justice system.
“It’s therapeutic on one hand, but it’s traumatizing on the other because I have to relive it but people need to be educated about the death penalty and the justice system,” Steidl said.
He says the photo exhibit is a moving tribute to men and women like him.
“I think it’s beautiful. A lot of these guys, I was on death row with. Twenty years ago, I was walking the yard of death row with him. There was 20 of us on death row, I didn’t have a clue at the time that I was walking around with 19 innocent men. All of us have been freed in the last 20 years,” he added. “All these men on this wall suffered for decades upon decades. I see their eyes in the mirror every day. You can see the pain in their eyes.”
Steidl’s strong witness helped to abolish capital punishment in Illinois in March of this year. He says the end capital punishment is a first step but the system is still severely broken.
“I didn’t have a voice. I said I was innocent but nobody cared,” he said. “That’s going on right now. There are still innocent people sitting on death row in this country. It’s a barbaric system that needs to change, it needs to end.”
Steidl became the 18th person to be freed because of a wrongful conviction after serving time on the state’s death row since Illinois reinstated the death penalty in 1977. Two more were released after him.
To date, there have been at least 31 wrongful convictions in Illinois.
“A study shows that taxpayers spent $250 million on wrongful convictions,” said Rob Warden, Executive Director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University’s School of Law.