updated 5/28/2004 1:38:04 PM ET 2004-05-28T17:38:04

A man who claims he was wrongly convicted of stabbing a newlywed couple to death walked out of prison Friday after 17 years behind bars.

Gordon Randall Steidl, 52, was released from the Danville Correctional Center after prosecutors sent a motion to a county judge Thursday asking him to dismiss the case because they couldn’t meet a deadline for retrying him.

Prosecutor David Rands said charges could still be refiled later.

Steidl became the 18th person since Illinois reinstated the death penalty in 1977 to be freed because of a questionable conviction after serving time on death row.

He thanked his lawyers and his family, “especially my mother for the last 17 years. This is a lady of steel.”

He was convicted of stabbing Dyke and Karen Rhoads to death and setting their home in Paris ablaze in 1986. Steidl’s death sentence was reduced to life in prison without parole in 1999, but the conviction still stood.

DNA testing pivotal
The prosecutors’ request came after months of fresh investigations, including new DNA testing, set in motion last June when a federal judge ruled it was “reasonably probable” that Steidl would have been acquitted if his defense attorney had done more to challenge the state’s case.

Since the 1987 conviction, the prosecution witness who said she saw Steidl killing the couple has recanted, and state authorities concluded police botched the investigation.

Marge Spesard, Karen Rhoads’ mother, believes Steidl is being freed on a technicality.

“I’m just leaving it up to God,” Spesard said. “He knows and he’ll take care of it.”

Several wrongful convictions led then-Gov. George Ryan to declare a moratorium on executions in 2000 and then to clear death row before he left office in 2003.

Another defendant, Herbert Whitlock, was also convicted of killing Karen Rhoads and is serving a life sentence. He, too, has maintained his innocence.

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