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Remembering a professor who fiercely pursued justice

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | JUNE 16, 2011 7:20 AM

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University of Iowa Joseph B. Tye Law Professor David Baldus died Monday after a long battle with colon cancer, ending the career of a man who worked tirelessly against an unjust system.

Baldus, 75, had worked at the University of Iowa since 1969. He is most recognized for his ethical research work on the death penalty. In his 1990 book, Equal Justice and the Death Penalty: a legal and empirical analysis, with contributions from George Woodworth and Charles A. Pulaski, Baldus brought to light racial disparities and arbitrary discrimination in the capital-punishment system. His body of work added an important dimension to an ongoing issue: a failure of the American legal system to treat citizens equally.

Baldus wrote numerous empirical studies covering discriminatory practices and the death penalty. In his research, he showed that defendants accused of killing white victims were more than four times likely to receive the death penalty than those accused of killing black victims. A significant amount of his work focused on the state of Georgia. He revealed that certain states — mostly Southern ones, like Georgia — used very broad definitions for murder when setting death-penalty eligibility. These definitions included rape or armed robbery, even when the situation did not result in the death of the victim.

“Basically, these procedures left juries free to impose sentence based on whatever criteria they liked, without regard to their legitimacy or their relevance to the sentencing decision. Furthermore, they provided absolutely no assurance that capital defendants would be judged according to the criteria employed by different juries in other cases,” Baldus wrote in Equal Justice and the Death Penalty.

Baldus’ academic contributions were used as the cornerstone for well-known death penalty cases involving racial disparities, such as McClesky v. Kemp and appellate review of Furman v. Georgia, among many others. Up until just a few short weeks ago, Baldus had continued working with law students on such research projects and in his death-penalty seminar.

“His projects were heavily statistical. He always had a cadre of research assistants,” Clinical Professor Lois Cox, a longtime friend and colleague of Baldus’, told the DI Editorial Board. “He would meet with students several times a week. He was here all the time, and with them, too, even though he was too sick to be. What a privilege it must have been to be in that seminar.”

Cox spoke highly of Baldus not just for his death-penalty research but also in regard to his commitment to the promotion of academic freedom at the University of Iowa and elsewhere. Baldus was a longtime member and activist in the American Association of University Professors and served on Committee A.

“His activism was all about the respect of individuals and treating individuals with dignity,” Cox said. “He wanted to make sure faculty received fair procedural treatment in regard to academic freedom and tenure. David was very influential and offered unfathomable guidance.”

Cox also emphasized his candid nature and earnest desire to help other people.

“He made time to meet with many, many people on this campus. He would spend his own limited time helping people. He was a huge resource, and this is a great loss for the community,” Cox said, remarking that it was difficult to hold back her tears.

Baldus made world-renowned contributions to law ethics, specifically in the arena of racial disparities and use of the death penalty. His work will continue to be used in many classrooms for years to come. His contributions and character should also serve as an example of excellence for university students across the country.

Many of the problems Baldus sought to address — particularly systemic racism and classism in the justice system — are still endemic. A recent survey from the World Justice Project reported that the legal system is primarily accessible to high-income whites; a 2009 Human Rights Watch study found that more blacks than whites are incarcerated for marijuana possession, even though whites use marijuana at a much higher rate. As the community remembers Baldus, we hope that honoring his legacy will include seeking to remedy the injustices he highlighted throughout his career.

“Professor Baldus excelled in every dimension of his professional life. He was a world renowned scholar,” Associate Dean and Law Professor Eric Andersen wrote in an e-mail. “He was a great teacher, regularly involving students in cutting-edge research projects. He was regularly involved in law school and university service, as well as contributing his time and talents to many outside constituencies. Above all, he was a wonderful human being who cared about others and was always ready to help shoulder their burdens.”


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