Madison - St. Clair Record

Monday, October 14, 2019

Fifth District Appellate Court rejects appeal by convicted murderer

By Todd Barnett | Jul 10, 2017

MT. VERNON —  An Illinois man who was convicted of murder, armed robbery and home invasion in 1987 lost another appeal.

On June 13, a three-judge appellate panel at the Fifth District Appellate Court ruled in favor of a motion filed by the Office of the State Appellate Defender (OSAD) to withdraw as Steven Hoffstetter’s counsel on the grounds that the defendant’s appeal was without merit. 

Hoffstetter argued that state’s attorneys are part of the judicial branch and should be barred from prosecuting criminal cases. Given that he was prosecuted by the Madison County State’s Attorney, the defendant alleged that this deprived the circuit court that convicted him of jurisdiction over his case, thereby voiding its verdict.

Steven Hoffstetter |

Judge Melissa Chapman, supported by judges James Moore and Thomas Welch, held that “the state’s attorney had the authority to commence and to prosecute the underlying criminal proceeding, and the circuit court had jurisdiction over the proceeding.” 

In their decision, the court formally granted OSAD’s motion to withdraw from the proceedings and affirmed Hoffstetter’s conviction.

On July 1, 1987, a jury found Hoffstetter guilty of armed robbery, home invasion and the murders of Della Riggins, Kevin Burch and Christopher Schrom, whom the defendant and a partner shot to death after an argument over drug debts, burning their remains afterward. On Aug. 31, 1987, a circuit court sentenced the defendant to life sentences for each of the murder counts plus 30 additional years for armed robbery and home invasion. 

The defendant initially appealed his conviction on the grounds that he had not been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. He alleged that the circuit court made errors in rulings on evidence and jury instructions, and that the state’s attorney made improper comments during the closing argument. The Fifth District Appellate Court denied his appeal and confirmed his conviction in 1990.

In December 1991, Hoffstetter filed a petition, alleging further errors in jury instructions and charging his trial attorney with a conflict of interest and providing ineffective assistance. He claimed that the state did not satisfactorily prove prior criminal convictions cited in the sentencing hearing. He also declared himself unfit to stand trial. 

The circuit court dismissed this petition as without merit in January 1992. The defendant appealed again, but the appeals court affirmed the dismissal of the petition. In June 2001, Hoffstetter petitioned for relief of judgment on the grounds that his life sentences were in violation of due-process guidelines outlined by the U.S. Supreme Court. The circuit court again dismissed the defendant’s petition, and the appeals court likewise affirmed the dismissal in February 2003.

In August 2014, the defendant filed another petition, declaring his conviction void on the grounds that the state’s attorney who helped convict him was not eligible to do so as part of the judicial branch. Hoffstetter also challenged the jurisdiction of the circuit court. 

The circuit court dismissed the petition the following November, leading to Hoffstetter’s latest appeal in which OSAD filed a motion to withdraw as the defendant’s counsel. 

OSAD's motion was granted on June 13 by the appeals court, which again affirmed the circuit court’s dismissal of the defendant’s petition, finding “the judgment of conviction was perfectly valid, not void.” 

In its decision, the court found that the defendant’s argument that the state’s attorneys are part of the judiciary and, based on Hoffstetter’s interpretation of Section 19, Article VI of the Illinois Constitution, “completely ignores the other 18 sections” of the article, in which the court found that “there is no hint that [the] state’s attorneys are part of the judiciary.”

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Illinois Fifth District Appellate Court Office of the State Appellate Defender