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Pawlenty death penalty plan runs into early opposition
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DFL Majority Leader John Hottinger, left, says capital punishment is foreign to Minnesota's heritage. DFL House Minority Leader Matt Entenza, right, of St. Paul says the governor's timing is regrettable. (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
Gov. Pawlenty's call for returning the death penalty to Minnesota is encountering stiff criticism from some who say the governor is trading on the publicity surrounding the disappearance last month of 22-year-old Dru Sjodin. One day after a convicted sex offender was arrested in connection with Sjodin's apparent abduction, Pawlenty said he'd support capital punishment in certain murder or attempted murder cases that involve sexual assault. But that plan is likely to face stiff opposition from lawmakers in both parties.

St. Paul, Minn. — Gov. Pawlenty is offering little additional comment on his plan to reintroduce a state death penalty, telling reporters that he'd rather focus now on the continuing search for Dru Sjodin, the missing University of North Dakota student who is presumed to have been abducted in Grand Forks almost two weeks ago. But during an appearance on MSNBC, Pawlenty said Sjodin's disappearance -- and the subsequent arrest of convicted Minnesota sex offender Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. -- provide an opportunity to re-examine the state's handling of sexual predators.

"These types of tragedies or concerns always result in a public policy discussion. And some of that is natural. And that's what we're trying to advance here," Pawlenty said.

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Image No consensus, says Paulsen

Pawlenty says he won't engage critics who say his renewed interest in capital punishment is inappropriate political rhetoric meant to draw attention away from shortcomings in the sex offender program.

DFL House Minority Leader Matt Entenza of St. Paul says the governor's timing is regrettable.

"The members of my caucus were shocked that at a time that we should be out trying to figure out where this young woman is, that some politicians are trying to pander on hot button social issues," Entenza said.

But the governor says there's nothing novel about his position. As a legislator, Pawlenty voted twice -- in 1996 and 1997 -- for amendments that would have established a Minnesota death penalty.

Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, a long-time supporter of capital punishment, introduced death penalty legislation last spring. He says the debate began long before the Sjodin case. And he says it resonates with Minnesotans.

"A number of families that I've talked to are just sick and tired of murderers being put in prison and, maybe 20, 25 years down the road, these people are being let out. And they're being able to resume their lives, and the people that they heinously murdered can't come back to life and resume their lives," he said.

Death penalty proposals have fared poorly in Minnesota. The two amendments that Pawlenty supported were defeated by overwhelming, bipartisan opposition both times. The politcal landscape may have changed, however. The House is considered more conservative now than anytime in recent memory, and the GOP majority is the strongest it has ever been since party labels were adopted in the 1970s.

Republican House Majority Leader Erik Paulsen of Eden Prairie says there's still no consensus among GOP lawmakers on how to approach the issue. But Paulsen, who supports the death penalty, says it helps to have a governor offer his support.

"I think anytime you have a governor that's advocating an initiative, it gets more legs. And it makes sense that the public would ask, 'why are these predators on the street?' You either lock them up forever or you look at other alternatives. So I think it's appropriate to have the discussion," he said.

Hackbarth says he's confident the legislation will pass the House next year. But he's not as sure about its prospects in the DFL-controlled Senate. The issue doesn't fall neatly along party lines, and in the Senate, even Republican leaders are skeptical.

Minority Leader Dick Day of Owatonna says his pro-life position extends to convicted criminals. And DFL Majority Leader John Hottinger of St. Peter says capital punishment is foreign to Minnesota's heritage. "It's outside our tradition," according to Hottinger. "It's outside the nature of Minnesota. It's a cultural change and a defeatist change. But the reality is this isn't the time."

Minnesota hasn't had a death penalty option since 1911. The last execution in the state took place in 1906, when a convicted murderer was allowed to hang for 15 minutes before he died.

California has the most death row inmates but Texas leads the nation in executions, with 33 last year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

New York reinstated its death penalty eight years ago. But proponents have been frustrated that only seven convicted killers have been condemned and none has been executed. The first two who were to be executed had their death sentences set aside during appeals.

Recent years have seen growing numbers of death row inmates exonerated, largely based on analysis of DNA evidence. Nine have been cleared so far in 2003, according to the center.

In 2000, Illinois' then-Gov. George Ryan put a moratorium on executions there after courts found 13 men on death row had been wrongly convicted. Before leaving office in January, he cleared out Illinois' death row, commuting the sentences of 167 prisoners to life in prison and pardoning four men he said were innocent.

But in Massachusetts, Gov. Mitt Romney has launched a bid to bring the death penalty back to the state. It was banned there in 1984.

The Justice Department has not yet decided whether to seek the federal death penalty in the case of Richard Oslund, who's charged in the death of a Brinks guard who was gunned down at a Bloomington Target store in 1998.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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