Jesse White, Illinois Secretary of State, recently sent the voters an explanation of the upcoming vote on the “Proposed Call for a State of Illinois Constitutional Convention.” The wording of the ballot states in part: “In 1988 the electors rejected the call for a constitutional convention, with 75% voting against calling a convention….” I take this as the State of Illinois’ way of warning voters not to take advantage of this once-in-twenty-years chance to make productive changes at a time when the state’s coffers are almost dry because of government mismanagement.
I had planned to vote in favor of the call, because I would like to see significant changes in the criminal statutes of the state. If Mr. White had not said the following was a reason to vote against the call, I probably would have thrown his brochure in the trash and thought nothing more about it. But here’s what he said (and it should raise the hackles of every sentient being in Illinois):
“The convention could be dominated by current controversial issues like abortion, capital punishment, gay marriage, gun control . . . .”
And this occurs in a paragraph headed “Influence of Special Interests,” as if anyone who has an opinion about these issues is in the pay of some industry or lobby group.
I would like to see the following changes made to the way criminal statutes are administered and criminal cases tried in Illinois courts:
1. Capital Punishment
Either capital punishment should be abolished in Illinois or the rules for juries in capital cases should be changed. There should be two separate juries and two separate trials in a capital case: in the guilt-phase trial, jurors should be permitted to serve who, like me, oppose the death penalty. A “death-qualified jury” is predisposed to find a defendant guilty. Nowhere in the U.S. has this been more apparent than in Illinois. (Remember that in 2003, Gov. George Ryan [now in jail himself] commuted 156 death sentences and pardoned 4 death row inmates because they were manifestly wrongly convicted. See the BBC for the story: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/2649125.stm). If a defendant is found guilty by a fair jury, then a separate trial should be conducted in which the jury should be “death qualified.” There can be no argument against this idea based on cost to the taxpayers. Capital punishment is already outrageously expensive. If anything, this would reduce the number of people condemned to death and thus reduce the cost of maintaining them on death row for decades during the appeals process.
2. Decouple Kidnapping from Other Violent Crimes
Currently, prosecutors and judges in Illinois (and elsewhere) are abusing the Illinois kidnapping statutes by piling kidnapping charges onto other criminal charges in order to increase the potential sentence for the underlying crime. This is un-American. It also ought to be unconstitutional in Illinois.
In America, state legislators write the laws; the laws specify the punishments for crimes. Judges and prosecutors ought not to be permitted to circumvent the people’s representatives by piling charges on other charges. So, I would like to see a constitutional amendment or clause that states that the crime of kidnapping may never be added to an underlying violent crime; I would only permit kidnapping to be the underlying crime to which other violent crime charges might be added. I would also require legislators to define kidnapping such that the act of kidnapping is the clear primary intent of the criminal. Then, crimes committed after the abduction occurred could be added to the kidnapping charges. (I don’t know why the term “abduction” isn’t used in the current statutes, anyway.) For example, the following crimes might be added to a kidnapping charge: murder, rape, torture, involuntary servitude, human trafficking, and robbery.
Kidnapping is abduction. Kidnapping is not restraint. Many violent crimes involve restraint by definition. Rape always involves restraint. But kidnapping for the purpose of rape is very different from restraint for the purpose of rape. You can’t rape someone without restraining the person.
In addition, I would make parental or custodial kidnapping of a minor a separate crime–clearly and unequivocally–unless the kidnapping is followed by another violent crime against the minor, including not only murder, rape, etc., but also any form of abuse or neglect. I’m not seeking to condone parental kidnapping, only to acknowledge that when parents take their children outside the jurisdiction of a family court, it isn’t with the “intent” of kidnapping, but with the intent of taking custody of their child.
3. Judges Instructions
Judges’ instructions to the jury should correctly state the law, as written by the legislature. Judges’ instructions should be required to state the exact wording of the applicable statute without paraphrasing, rewording, or deleting words or phrases–or even punctuation.
4. Jury Education
Before serving on a jury in Illinois, jurors are presented with a 15-minute videotape (about 20 years old) in which the process is explained briefly. The state needs to provide far more information. Juror’s rights and responsibilities need to be spelled out. Jurors need an unfettered way of communicating their concerns about jury deliberations to the judge, and if they have concerns about the judge then there ought to be another authority with whom they can communicate.
In fact, I’d like to see a Juror’s Bill of Rights in the Illinois Constitution. How about a right to privacy during voir dire? How about a right to nullify an unjust law or unjust prosecution? How about a right to adequate compensation during trials that last longer than a week? How about a right to a secret verdict ballot? How about a requirement that jurors cannot speak to the media after a trial about any fellow juror?
On the topic of a secret ballot: In many trials after the verdict is read aloud in the court, the jury is polled to verify that they all agree to the verdict. That isn’t a problem. The problem is that during deliberations, peer pressure is very great on jurors who do not agree with the majority. A secret ballot would give such jurors a modicum of security from undue pressure.
I have decided now that a constitutional convention isn’t the best way to address these issues, although it seems to me the issues of capital punishment and juror’s rights might be constitutional in nature.
The electors to the convention would not be chosen by the people. The cost would be close to $80 million. Much of what happened in the court when I served as a juror should be unconstitutional, but amendments to the constitution would fix this and a whole new constitution surely would only make matters worse.
I’m voting NO on the Illinois Constitutional Convention.