PRESTONSBURG — In 1987, Paris, Ill., resident Randy Steidl says he never imagined he would soon be sentenced to die for a double murder he did not commit. Over the next 12 years, there were times when he nearly gave up hope that he would ever be freed.
“There were times I would pray at night for God to let me die in my sleep, so my loved ones wouldn’t have to suffer and I wouldn’t have to suffer anymore.” Steidl said.
But Steidl would not have to die to escape death row. In 2004, Steidl was exonerated of the crimes that kept him in prison for 17 years.
Steidl was at Big Sandy Community and Technical College last week, the final stop in a statewide tour of seven college campuses over the preceding four days.
Steidl told those in attendance that the death penalty system is riddled with errors and inequities, which make implementing the state’s most severe punishment a risky proposition.
“Illinois had 20 of us, 20 of us that were exonerated from death row, out of 160,” Steidl said.”That’s the kind of system we have in this country. There’s 141 of us in this country, the lucky ones. We don’t know how many were not as fortunate.
“It wasn’t the system that freed me. I was freed in spite of the system.”
Steidl said those who want to see the worst criminals punished should sentence them to a fate worse than the death penalty — life without the possibility of parole.
“Having been on death row, I watched seven men walk by my cell to be executed, and I often wondered if they were delusional, because they were smiling, they had peace in their eyes,” Steidl said. “But I realized that they knew that at midnight, at 12:01, they were being released. Because many, many a night, I laid in that cell, 23 hours a day, praying to God I would just die … As harsh as death row was, I found the five-and-a-half years of a life sentence that I did was far harsher.”
Today, he works with Witness to Innocence, the nation’s only anti-capital punishment advocacy group created by and working on behalf of former death row inmates and their families. Members of the group speak around the country in an effort to convince states to abolish the death penalty.
Steidl’s visit was sponsored by the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, and the Kentucky chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.