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Lesa Petersen
School of Law-Bloomington

Susan Williams
IU Media Relations

Last modified: Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Landmark plan for death penalty reform to be discussed at IUB law school conference

Joseph Hoffman

Print-Quality Photo


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- In May, the Massachusetts Governor's Council on Capital Punishment released a report outlining 10 recommendations for the creation of a fair and accurate death-penalty system. These proposals, many of which are unprecedented in the history of the American death penalty, already have begun to influence the ongoing dialogue about death-penalty reform.

On Sept. 10-11, the Indiana University School of Law-Bloomington will host a conference titled "Toward a Model Death-Penalty Code: The Massachusetts Governor's Council Report." The conference is expected to serve as a "next step" toward developing a national model for capital punishment, according to Joseph L. Hoffmann, the Harry Pratter Professor of Law at IU Bloomington and co-chair of the governor's council appointed by Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

The conference will focus on the recommendations contained in the Governor's Council report and their implications. Individual panels will focus on the major themes of the report, such as narrowing the scope of capital crimes; transforming the nature of jury decision-making in capital sentencing; elevating the role of DNA and scientific evidence; providing trial and appellate judges with broad substantive review powers; and creating a new death-penalty review commission to study alleged errors in capital cases. The conference will begin Sept. 10 at 9 a.m. and conclude Sept. 11 with a noon lunch.

"The Massachusetts report is the next big thing in the evolution of the death penalty and, we hope, the catalyst to making some dramatic changes across the country. Right now, there's a lot of momentum behind this report as states begin to evaluate their death-penalty systems and rethink whether they're doing things the right way," said Hoffmann, a nationally recognized authority on the death penalty.

In 2002, Hoffmann, a former law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, authored historic death-penalty legislation, the Fundamental Justice Amendment, in Illinois to correct the state's famously flawed capital punishment system. The amendment, which was enacted earlier this year, gives the Illinois Supreme Court the power to reverse any death sentence that it deems fundamentally unjust.

The Massachusetts Governor's Council developed a series of 10 proposals allowing for the creation of a capital punishment statute for Massachusetts that would ensure -- as much as is humanly possible -- that no innocent person is ever condemned to death, Hoffmann said.

In its 29-page report, the 11-member council recommended that the death penalty be limited to what it calls the "worst of the worst" murders and murderers, and administered only when scientific evidence strongly corroborates a defendant's guilt. The proposed system also would require jurors to have "no doubt" about guilt -- a higher burden of proof than "beyond a reasonable doubt" -- to sentence a defendant to death.

"We believe this is as perfect a model as human beings can make," Hoffmann said.

The council included attorneys with prosecution, defense and judicial experience, forensic scientists, persons with extensive backgrounds in law enforcement, and legal and medical academics. The panel of experts was not asked to consider or make any recommendation about whether legislation on capital punishment should be considered or approved in Massachusetts, one of 12 states without the death penalty.

Because there were no procedures or institutions already in place, the council could focus its attention on "best practices" for a possible death-penalty statute and debate each idea without the distraction of political considerations, Hoffmann said.

"I'm not sure the political climate for this report could ever be reproduced. The normal ideological conflicts in death-penalty reform work simply didn't apply to our process," he added.

The list of conference participants includes leading forensic scientists, leading scholars with expertise relevant to death-penalty reform, and judges and policymakers who have been involved in reform efforts. They include Edwin Colfax, director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law; Franklin Zimring, the William G. Simon Professor of Law at the University of California-Berkeley; and Frederick Bieber, associate professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School, co-chair of the Governor's Council and internationally recognized authority on forensic medicine.

"We hope to take the next step in the direction of developing a national model death-penalty code. Whether you're for or against the death penalty or neutral, you'll have a chance to sit down and think about the issues in a non-political environment," Hoffmann said.

To speak to Hoffmann, contact Lesa Petersen, IU School of Law-Bloomington, at 812-856-4044 or, or Susan Williams, IU Media Relations, at 812-855-8773 or