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A View from Metro East: A man leaves prison after southern Illinois murder retrial

Patrick E. Gauen
WUIS/Illinois Issues

"What do I do now?" Rodney Woidtke's lawyer heard his client's first words as a free man and had to explain that "not guilty" meant he would not be going back to prison.

It was a triumph for Ron Jenkins, who took the murder retrial on a token retainer. It was a triumph for Woidtke, a paranoid schizophrenic who began denying the crime after first confessing three times. It may even be a triumph for the court system of St. Clair County, which at times seemed more determined to blame Woidtke than to make sure of his guilt. 

The odds hadn't looked good for Woidtke since I introduced him in this space almost a year ago (see June 2000, page 37). He was a homeless drifter who in 1988 wandered onto a high school campus in Belleville where police had recovered the decomposed body of Audrey Cardenas, a missing newspaper reporter. Sure, he told detectives, he killed her. Molested her, beat her head with a pipe and put her clothes back on. 

There were problems: She had no head injuries. Her clothes were off. They weren't the clothes he described. Investigators said he gave the body's location accurately and knew there was a barrette in her hair and keys by her side. 

Guilty, said Judge Richard Aguirre, after medicine made Woidtke fit for a two-day bench trial in 1989. The evidence included neither eyewitnesses nor incriminating science. The sentence was 45 years in prison. In 1998, stories by St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporters Carolyn Tuft and Bill Smith about an alternative suspect, double-murderer Dale Anderson of Belleville, lured Jenkins to Woidtke's cause. Jenkins got 5th District appellate judges to overturn the conviction (because for a while Woidtke and Anderson had the same attorney) and to lambaste the trial court for improperly ignoring years of Woidtke's pleas for post-trial review.

That's how I left it with you last year, before State's Attorney Robert Haida refiled the murder charge and took Woidtke back to trial on the same evidence. It was one in a series of judgment calls that seemed to cut against the defense.

  • Chief Judge Stephen Kernan refused a waiver for Jenkins of suburban St. Louis to practice in Belleville on his Missouri law license. So Jenkins took and passed the Illinois bar for the privilege of donating thousands of dollars in his time. When another prominent Missouri lawyer, Burton Shostak, offered gratis help, Kernan denied him a waiver as well.
  • The case went to Associate Judge Stephen Rice, a veteran lawyer but a new judge who was working his way up from traffic court. He had never presided over a felony trial. 
  • Rice refused to recuse himself over close friendships with at least two key investigators in the case, including the arresting officer. An outside judge turned down Jenkins' motion to disqualify Rice and the rest of the 20th Circuit.
  • Prosecutors persuaded Rice to bar any mention of Anderson from the trial, even though it was the representation conflict between Anderson and Woidtke that got the 1989 conviction overturned. 

The first retrial, in January, fizzled when a witness let slip that Woidtke had taken a polygraph test. Actually, the test had been aborted, but mere mention of it forced a mistrial. The second try, in late March, turned on the confessions: Prosecutors said Woidtke told some details wrong because he was cunning; Jenkins said he told some right because he was coached. No recording was made of the first two statements; part of the third was on audio tape. Making videos of police interrogations, which Illinois lawmakers are discussing, could have helped the truth emerge.
The jury took just over three hours to free Woidtke on virtually the same evidence that had cost him nearly 13 years of liberty. Haida offered a reminder that "not guilty" does not mean "innocent." Skeptics pointed out there was reason for officials to want to blame Woidtke. If Anderson killed Cardenas, it would raise the thorny question of why authorities didn't figure it out before he murdered a pregnant woman and her 3-year-old son 15 months later.

For the record, Haida offered Woidtke a deal just before the retrial; plead guilty and get out of prison in 14 more months instead of the 10 more years that were likely with a conviction. But the allegedly cunning Woidtke said no thanks, and is now living with his brother in California. 

Patrick E. Gauen writes an Illinois column for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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