Professors debate Illinois death penalty decision



An IU law professor is waiting for the Illinois House to decide whether they will take a look at an amendment he authored after the state's governor reduced 167 death sentences to life in prison.

Professor Joseph Hoffmann authored the "Fundamental Justice Amendment," an amendment that would be the first in the country to grant the state's Supreme Court the authority to reverse any death sentence by determining if the jury made the right decision, rather than searching for a flaw in the case itself, as is currently the case in Illinois.

On Saturday, Gov. George Ryan commuted every death penalty sentence in Illinois, changing each one to life in prison. The decision has shocked many professors around the country, including Hoffmann.

Hoffmann said he thinks the governor's decision could have caused some harm in reforming the state's death penalty procedures.

"There may be less motive to do serious reform then there was before," he said. "The system needs to be fixed. That doesn't mean that all160 cases are tainted."

Hoffmann said he believes Ryan's decision to reduce every sentence to life in prison will only cover up the procedural defects within the system.

"That's the part of this that's problematic," Hoffmann said. "The system goes on unchanged. Nothing has changed." He said some of the death row defendants didn't even ask for the commutation.

Hoffmann said a selective commutation, which would have looked at death row inmates on a case-by-case basis, would have been a better solution. Instead, a blanket commutation was granted, meaning every sentence was reduced.

Hoffmann is now unsure whether his amendment will be looked at by the state again after Ryan's sweeping decision.

"I certainly hope that within a couple of weeks they will get over the shock, and we'll get back to work and do what needs to be done," he said.

Visiting IU law professor Steve Heyman said he believed if the state continued to look at the procedural defects of the state's system, then Hoffmann's amendment would be seriously considered.

"I think it will be one of the main things people will talk about," he said.

Although some professors are shocked and unhappy by the governor's decision, some in the community are pleased.

"I thought it was very courageous," said George Ewing of the Bloomington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. "It was clear that particularly in Illinois, it was a basket case."

Ewing said he was glad to see the governor reduce the state's death row inmates' sentences to life in prison and also disagrees with Hoffmann's amendment.

"Professor Hoffmann's ideas are just fiddling with the death machine," he said.

Currently, Indiana has 38 people under the death sentence. The state is also one of 38 states in the country that allows the death penalty. Ewing said he was unsure what would happen in Indiana.

IU law professor Craig Bradley said Ryan's statement concerning the death penalty was that he lacked confidence in the state's death penalty system, which Bradley said he believes is one of the reasons Gov. Ryan made the decision he did.

Although Hoffmann said he is unsure whether his amendment will be looked at again, he hopes Illinois can move on after the state's controversial decision.

"It looks as though Ryan wasn't really interested in reform," he said. "He was interested in getting rid of the death penalty"

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