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George Vlahakis
IU Media Relations

Last modified: Thursday, August 21, 2003

Indiana courts have opportunity to pursue spirit of Illinois' Fundamental Justice Amendment

IUB professor involved in drafting historic legislation

EDITORS: Joseph Hoffmann is available for interviews at 812-345-1520 and

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Lawyers and activists seeking a permanent stay of convicted murderer Darnell Williams' execution are raising the same kinds of issues in Indiana that the Fundamental Justice Amendment in Illinois was designed to resolve, says an Indiana University Bloomington law professor who authored the historic death penalty legislation.

Joseph L. Hoffmann, the Harry Pratter Professor of Law at IU Bloomington, drafted the Illinois legislation, which is intended to transform the state's famously flawed capital punishment system into a national model. It was passed by the Illinois legislature in late May, but it has not yet become effective because Gov. Rod Blagojevich used an amendatory veto on an unrelated portion of the same bill. Blagojevich has indicated his support for Hoffmann's proposal, which should be acted upon this fall.

The proposal would give the Illinois Supreme Court the power to reverse any death sentence that it deemed fundamentally unjust. For example, it would give the court more authority to rule out the death penalty in cases that rest on a single eyewitness or informant.

In the Williams case, attorneys requested DNA testing of blood evidence from the 1986 trial for robbery and murder of a Gary couple. The judge who presided over Williams' court hearings after his conviction, the prosecutor and some jurors urged authorities to allow the DNA tests. Before Gov. Frank O'Bannon's 60-day stay of execution, a federal court and the Indiana Supreme Court had rejected Williams' request.

"The entire thrust of what I've done in Illinois is to try to refocus some of the energy, time and money that we currently spend on post-trial litigation dealing with legal procedures, and shift that focus to reviewing the result of the trial," said Hoffmann, a nationally recognized authority on the death penalty. "We should be paying much more attention to issues of substantive mistakes and injustice and less attention to the technicalities of legal procedures.

"This was the heart of the problem in Illinois. Our system allows people to litigate for years about whether the judge used improper words in jury instruction or whether the defendant's lawyer made wise or bad choices during the trial. These procedural issues are supposed to be a means to an end," Hoffmann said. "They are supposed to result in a trial that convicts the right person and decides the right sentence. Yet after the trial we generally don't allow our courts to examine the correctness of the verdict and the sentence themselves."

Williams has maintained that he was not in the house where the shooting occurred. At the time of Williams' trial, DNA testing was not available to test blood evidence on his clothing, which his lawyers say was not from the victims. His conspirator, Gregory Rouster, has been deemed to be mentally disabled and as a result was declared ineligible for the death penalty.

Hoffmann, who is not directly involved in the Williams case and knows only what has appeared in public reports, said Williams' lawyers are asking the Indiana courts to do exactly what the Illinois courts would be authorized to do under the Fundamental Justice Amendment. In fact, Indiana courts arguably already have the right to consider such substantive issues prior to approving the death penalty for a defendant.

"This kind of review would be done as a backstop to the jury," he said.

Hoffmann said he expects that Williams' attorneys will appeal the Indiana courts' earlier rejection of his request for a hearing on DNA evidence. Legislation passed in the last session expanded access to DNA testing and expanded opportunities for convicted defendants to get judicial review of innocence claims. Until now, the courts had rejected Williams' request for a hearing on these new legal provisions.