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Death penalty gets its first hearing
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Mary Streufert, of Duluth, is opposed to the death penalty. Her 18-year-old daughter, Carin, was killed 15 years ago in Grand Rapids. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
A proposal to reinstate the death penalty in Minnesota got its first hearing at the Capitol on Thursday. The bill would allow voters to consider the issue in November. Gov. Pawlenty announced in December that he supports capital punishment for extreme cases of first degree murder. Critics say the death penalty doesn't deter crime and has caused problems in many other states.

St. Paul, Minn. — For the first time in over a decade, a committee in the Minnesota Legislature is considering a bill that would bring back the death penalty.

In recent years, death penalty supporters have tried various parliamentary maneuvers to force a vote on the issue, but haven't succeeded in the face of strong, bipartisan opposition. Legislative leaders say the opposition is still strong. However, the issue seems to have more traction since Gov. Pawlenty indicated his support. Pawlenty made his announcement right after a convicted rapist was charged with kidnapping North Dakota college student Dru Sjodin.

Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, says Sjodin's disappearance is only one reason why the death penalty should be reinstated.

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Image A supporter of the death penalty

"It's a very well put-together package, a well thought-out package, and probably very very few individuals would receive the death penalty under this bill. But at least we would have it in place under some of the most heinous crimes that are committed in the state of Minnesota," Hackbarth said.

Hackbarth's bill would allow Minnesota voters to decide in the November election if the death penalty should be reinstated. If a majority of voters approve the measure, prosecutors could consider the death penalty for first degree murders committed after January 1, 2007.

Criminals eligible for death would include those who committed multiple murders, killed a police officer, committed a sex crime in addition to murder, or committed murder in a cruel or heinous manner. The bill also appoints several task forces and committees to ensure that an innocent person isn't executed.

Rep. Keith Ellison, DFL-Minneapolis, says he doesn't think the death penalty can be implemented fairly.

"It's like putting lipstick on a pig. It doesn't work out. You can put rouge, you can put lipstick, you can put on any kind of makeup you want. You can't clean up or fix the death penalty," Ellison said.

Ellison says statistics show that most of the people on death row are people of color, are poor and didn't have adequate representation. He also says courts have released some death row inmates after DNA evidence proved their innocence.

We're likely to hear it to let people know what's going on, and then we'll probably kill it.
- Sen. Leo Foley

Several Catholic, Jewish, Lutheran, and Baptist leaders also expressed concern over the bill. One opponent told committee members that the death penalty won't bring back loved ones who have been murdered.

"I am proud to live in a state that does not have the death penalty and I want to keep it that way," said Duluth resident Mary Streufert, whose 18-year-old daughter was kidnapped, raped and murdered in Grand Rapids in 1991. "I am against the death penalty. It would not bring back our daughter and it would not make my grief and loss any less."

But supporters of the death penalty say it's the ultimate penalty and should be used. Long Prairie resident Sue Bleess says her friend was killed last April. She says the death penalty is an effective way to deter crime.

"Life in prison in Minnesota is 30 years. OK? And my concern is that these murderers, and these people who are committing heinous crimes, do have the opportunity to get out. They do have the opportunity to go and commit again. They do have the opportunity in prison to kill an inmate or a safety guard," Bleess said.

Several lawmakers who sit on the House Judiciary Policy and Finance Committee say lawmakers can't afford to reinstate the death penalty in light of last year's budget cuts. A fiscal analysis of the bill says the death penalty will cost the state $1 million to implement and $3.7 million a year once enacted.

Others say voters may be swayed to vote in favor of the constitutional amendment if a sensational murder occurs right before election day.

It's uncertain if the bill will even get out of committee. The first hearing ended without a vote and people still lined up to testify. The committee chair says he hopes to hold another hearing, but says he has a busy committee schedule.

And it may have an even more difficult time in the Minnesota Senate. Sen. Leo Foley, DFL-Coon Rapids, the chair of Senate Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee, says there's a bipartisan group of senators who oppose the bill.

"We're likely to hear it to let people know what's going on, and then we'll probably kill it," he said.

Foley says he'd like to hold a hearing on the bill in the next few weeks.

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