Calling it the “final insult,” surviving victims of the last man Kane County prosecutors put on death row are fighting to ensure a new Illinois law doesn’t override their sense of justice and security by setting a mass shooter free.
It was 21 years ago this April that a bouncer removed a customer from JB’s Pub in Elgin for harassing a female patron.
Luther Casteel returned with two shotguns, two handguns and at least 200 rounds of ammunition.
As he shouted, “I am the king,” a torrent of bullets killed two people and wounded at least 16 others. The Elgin man received the death penalty for his crimes.
But shortly after that conviction, evidence of a pattern of mishandled cases and improper death row convictions led to a moratorium on the state’s death penalty. The shooter’s sentence was commuted to life in prison.
In January of this year, a new state law came into effect, providing a path to appeal for a medical release from prison directly to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board. The law, known as the Joe Coleman Act, applies to prisoners with a terminal illness or “medical incapacitation.”
Though his medical status is not publicly known, the Elgin shooter — now 63 — is seeking release under the new law.
The dying and the dead
The law defines medical incapacitation as “any medical condition, including dementia and severe, permanent medical or cognitive disability, that prevents an individual in custody from completing more than one activity of daily living without assistance or that incapacitates the individual in custody to the extent that institutional confinement does not offer additional restrictions, and that the condition is unlikely to improve noticeably in the future.”
The law further defines a terminal illness as one that is “irreversible and incurable” as well as “likely to cause death within 18 months” as determined by a “reasonable degree of medical certainty.”
But for Steinar Andersen, the only certainty is that the man who shot his wife should never be released from prison — no matter what his health status is.
Andersen’s wife, Penny, lost much of the function in her left arm as a result of the prisoner’s shooting spree. She spent years traumatized by the physical and emotional pain of that night before succumbing to cancer in 2016.
“We were assured he would never see the outside of a prison, and yet the same politicians voted in this law with no warning to victims and their families that it could be used by murderers to circumvent life without parole,” Andersen said. “He has no remorse. None. He has not attempted to be a better human being. And my attempts at finding a middle ground regarding capital punishment are for naught.”
Worthy of compassion?
The Joe Coleman Act was written by Chicago House Democrat Will Guzzardi. It became law with large Democratic majority votes in the House and Senate. Six Republicans voted in favor as well.
Guzzardi explained the intent was to create a more equitable process for inmates with severe illness to seek medical release. That process existed before the law via a petition for clemency from the governor. But Guzzardi said the process often took so long that prisoners died before their applications could be reviewed. In addition, it was a process often only available to prisoners who could hire lawyers to guide clemency applications through the proper channels.
Guzzardi’s law skips the governor, speeds up the process and removes the need for lawyers.
“If the purpose of incarceration is to keep our community safe, it’s hard to imagine the people with these sorts of crippling and profound illnesses who may be released through this law would pose a threat to our community,” Guzzardi said. “My guess is the folks we are releasing are going straight to the nursing home, and they are not going to be in any shape to create new offenses.”
Beyond Guzzardi’s belief of a low safety risk is also a moral and spiritual belief that everyone is worthy of compassion at the end of life.
“We are called, as human beings, to find in our hearts compassion even for people who have done heinously terrible things,” Guzzardi said. “That doesn’t mean there should not be consequences for doing those things. But when they are very, very sick and don’t pose a risk to create further harm, there is nothing to be gained from keeping them incarcerated. It’s enormously expensive to the state. We are going to provide them profoundly substandard medical care. And then they are going to die.”
The convicted killer in the Elgin case is set to receive a nonpublic hearing on his medical appeal on June 24. The Illinois Prisoner Review Board is accepting victim testimony and letters in advance at PRB.MedicalRelease@Illinois.gov. A three-member panel will determine the outcome.
All things considered
Three years ago, the Elgin shooter explained to a writer from GQ Magazine why he went on his shooting rampage. In that article, he said he felt slighted after being bounced out of the pub. But that was just the last straw in life where he grew up with parents who were “chronic welfare recipients who were anti-social, anti-education and didn’t give a damn about us kids,” said the shooter in the GQ article. That upbringing led to depression, unsuccessful therapy and a string of criminal offenses starting at age 12, he said.
Kane County State’s Attorney Jamie Mosser read that article, which includes the shooter talking about stockpiling weapons and preparing for something “much bigger.”
Mosser sees an ongoing threat in those words. She submitted a letter to the prison review board opposing medical release.
In an interview, Mosser said someone who committed crimes as “malicious” as those of the Elgin shooter should not even have the option to apply for medical release.
“He was properly sentenced to death and should have had that sentence carried out, but it was commuted to life,” Mosser said. “He would now like to die around his family and friends instead of behind bars, which is something he ripped away from the numerous people he hurt and killed. I really hope he is not considered for release. It would make our community unsafe.”
The lead prosecutor in the initial death penalty case was Robert Berlin, now the DuPage County state’s attorney. Berlin said the killer’s release “would be a gross miscarriage of justice.”
“This guy is the personification of evil,” Berlin said. " ... Crimes like this have an impact on the entire community, and it never goes away. There has to be justice. If he is released, it would be one of the biggest miscarriages of justice I’ve ever experienced.”
Patty Jones Bertucci already feels a sense of injustice. She’s felt it since the Elgin shooter -- who murdered her husband, Jeff “Whitey” Weides -- was rescued from the death penalty. But at least she felt safe knowing that her husband’s killer would be behind bars for life.
She never thought she’d have to revisit the trauma of losing Whitey in a letter to prison officials more than 20 years after his murder. But that’s what she’s been doing this week, writing pleas along with her two now-grown children who lost their father in the rampage.
“This monster deserves nothing,” Bertucci said. “He already had a second chance when he was commuted to life in prison. It would be a disgrace to the victims, our families and an entire community to even consider a third chance when none of his victims ever had a choice or chance.
“My kids are reliving all the pain and heartache and are scared now for him to possibly be released,” she continued. “He wants medical release? He can suffer and rot in prison.”