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MPR poll: State split over use of death penalty
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Among the 625 respondents, 33 percent rate the state's efforts as excellent or good. By contrast 59 percent say the state does a fair or poor job. (MPR Graphic)
A new poll shows Minnesotans evenly divided over Gov. Tim Pawlenty's plan to re-introduce the state death penalty. Pawlenty is proposing that voters decide the issue when they go to the polls in November. The Minnesota Public Radio-St. Paul Pioneer Press survey shows 46 percent of the state's likely voters oppose capital punishment, compared to 44 percent who support it. But the same poll also shows Minnesotans are fairly unified in their desire to crack down on the state's sexual offenders.

St. Paul, Minn. — Gov. Pawlenty's push for the return of capital punishment began with the arrest last year of convicted Minnesota sex offender Alfonso Rodriguez, Jr., in connection with the disappearance of college student Dru Sjodin.

The case's high media profile and the revelations of Rodriguez's past offenses have intensified the debate over how to handle sexual predators. Sandy Hjelm, 65, says for sex offenders who murder their victims, it's time to consider the death penalty. The White Bear Lake homemaker says she worries for the safety of her grandchildren.

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Image Sen. Leo Foley, DFL-Coon Rapids.

"It's in the paper all the time," she said. "Or on the news. It's not like when I was young. You didn't have to worry about those things. But things are different today."

Hjelm is one of 625 likely Minnesota voters contacted last week for the poll. It has a margin of sampling error of 4 percentage points.

The state is equally divided over the capital punishment question: 44 percent, like Hjelm, support it while a nearly equal number -- 46 percent -- stand opposed.

Pawlenty spokeswoman Leslie Kupchella says the findings aren't surprising. Kupchella says the governor's plan is narrowly tailored to affect only the state's most violent criminals and includes numerous safeguards to protect against errors or a wrongful execution.

"He's put some pretty rigid controls in terms of what circumstances he would be supporting death penalty as an option for juries," said Kupchella. "So there's a lot of things under that that he thought, you know, had those been included, too, I suspect the public support for that may very well rise."

But regardless of the public's sympathies, any proposal would first have to survive a skeptical state Legislature. Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum says lawmakers have little appetite for a divisive death penalty debate, and are unlikely to even approve putting the question on the November ballot for voters to consider.

"Personally, I would support the governor's limited, cautious approach," said Sviggum. But he adds, "As speaker, I'm not going to spend a lot of time on the agenda of this session where the result is not going to -- we already know the result to be negative. Or we assume the result to be negative."

Sviggum says House Republicans will instead focus on toughening penalties for violent criminals or sexual predators. For the worst offenders, Sviggum says his caucus will propose life sentences without the possibility of parole.

Sviggum says that plan is in keeping with another poll finding: 73 percent of Minnesotans feel the state is too lenient with sex offenders. That compares to only 1 percent who say the state is too tough and 18 percent who believe sentences are adequate.

Respondent Dwayne Swenson of Le Center is among those who believe that state should get tougher. But the 31-year-old honeymaker and beekeeper says life without parole might go too far. He says he doesn't want to see the state strain an already tight budget.

"Financially it creates a big burden," he said. "And if they educate them right and lead them back into society and just keep an eye on them, that's pretty much the name of it. Don't give them the opportunity to cause a problem."

Sen. Leo Foley, DFL-Coon Rapids, chairs the Senate Crime Prevention and Public Safety committee. He's advocating a system of so-called "indeterminate sentencing" -- incarcerating offenders for an unspecified period until state officials determine they can be safely returned to society.

"They should be given the opportunity to be released if they've demonstrated the capabilities of having changed," said Foley. "And that, of course, is with close supervision and also with a monitoring program."

Foley says he supports increased monitoring of offenders who find themselves back on the streets. On that point, 84 percent of respondents favor the governor's proposal to track offenders using electronic wrist or ankle bracelets.

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