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Governor to push for return of death penalty to Minnesota
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Opponents of the death penalty lined the corridor outside the governor's office as Gov. Pawlenty called for a referendum on the death penalty in Minnesota. (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
Gov. Tim Pawlenty is asking legislators to let Minnesota voters decide whether the state should re-introduce capital punishment in certain murder cases. Pawlenty first floated the idea after a repeat Minnesota sex offender was connected to the disappearance of college student Dru Sjodin. Pawlenty says, with proper safeguards, the death penalty would provide an ultimate punishment for the state's worst offenders. Opponents say the governor is moving the state in the wrong direction.

St. Paul, Minn. — Pawlenty has supported capital punishment throughout his political career, but he acknowledges he reached a tipping point late last year when authorities charged convicted Minnesota sex-offender Alfonso Rodriguez, Jr., with the kidnapping of University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin. Saying he was "fed up," Pawlenty called for reviving the state death penalty after almost 100 years of disuse. He's now asking reluctant lawmakers to put the issue to the public as a constitutional amendment. If lawmakers consent, voters could consider the issue in the fall.

"I believe the public supports this issue. It appears preliminarily the Legislature has some concerns and, in aggregate, may be opposed," Pawlenty said, "but this is an issue of very significant moral and public policy weight, and I believe people should be heard on it directly."

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Image Gov. Pawlenty

Pawlenty's plan would give state prosecutors the option of seeking the death penalty in some first-degree murder cases -- including those with multiple victims, those involving sexual assault, or those considered "heinous, atrocious, or cruel."

Jim Stuedemann appeared with the governor to show his support for the measure. Stuedemann's 18-year-old daughter Jolene was murdered and raped in the family's Woodbury home during the summer of 2000.

"To anyone in our position, and I wouldn't wish that on anyone, I think that you would feel the same way we do: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," Stuedemann said. "Someone convicted of such a heinous crime who shows no sense of remorse should not be allowed to live out his life after conviction."

Pawlenty is proposing multiple safeguards to protect the integrity of the process. A capital sentence would require a unanimous jury, the concurrence of the trial judge, and review by several authorities before it could be carried out. Minors and mentally ill defendants would be ineligible for the penalty -- as would cases without a direct DNA link.

But opponents say no system if fool-proof. They say numerous other states have questioned their own capital punishment laws in the wake of high-profile reversals in other states that have set some convicts free and reduced the sentences of others. Joint Religious Legislative Coalition executive director Brian Rusche said he's particularly concerned about the governor's plan to put the issue to a direct vote. Rusche said the Legislature is the proper arena for the debate.

"To try to collapse this issue into a single short question is to take it out of context and to do violence to the whole process of lawmaking," he said. "This is an issue that takes deep deliberation, concern, care, swimming in the details -- some of which are very repugnant -- but legislators should be doing that work."

In the 1990's, House members twice voted down death penalty language, and House and Senate lawmakers of both parties reacted negatively to the governor's initial proposal last month. Opponents may be persuaded to approve the most recent plan, however, knowing that the public will have the final say during the referendum.

But Rep. Eric Lipman, R-Lake Elmo, said he doesn't think the atmosphere will change.

"I think for cultural and lots of political and procedural reasons that that particular proposal doesn't have legs."

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, also said there's little sentiment in the Senate for a state death penalty.

"There are some in our caucus that want to hold hearings on the death penalty. Again, engage the public, ask them what they think about it," he said. "I do not think that within our caucus there would be a majority of votes for the death penalty from my early reading."

Pawlenty, however, argues that 38 other state impose the death penalty in certain circumstances. He says moving in that direction would simply bring Minnesota into the mainstream.

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