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Senate panel defeats death penalty bill
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Kirk Bloodsworth spent almost nine years in a Maryland prison, two of them on death row, before DNA tests helped win his release. Bloodsworth says he empathizes with victims and their families, but he says innocent suspects are often equally victimized by the death penalty. (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
A plan to reintroduce the death penalty in Minnesota was derailed on Wednesday when a Senate committee overwhelmingly voted to reject the proposal. The bill was modeled on an capital punishment proposal outlined by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. The governor broached the subject last fall, in response to reports that a convicted Minnesota sex offender was suspected in the apparent abduction of college student Dru Sjodin. But now, Pawlenty says the proposal appears defeated for the year.

St. Paul, Minn. — The Senate Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee voted 8-2 against Gov. Pawlenty's death penalty plan, an outcome that came as no surprise to most observers. But the result was nonetheless a disappointment to advocates for capital punishment.

That includes Jim Stuedemann of Woodbury, whose daughter was raped and murdered during the summer of 2000. A suspect was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the crime, but Stuedemann told the committee the punishment doesn't go far enough.

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Image Archbishop Harry Flynn

"Put yourself in our position, and think what your view would be if he had come to your house and did this to your wife or your daughter," said Stuedemann. "As bad as it sounds in your mind -- you can't imagine the demons we deal with every day, knowing that he is still alive and our beautiful daughter Jolene isn't."

Pawlenty's plan would have reserved capital punishment for certain, limited murder cases, including those that occur in the course of sexual assault. The plan also required numerous safety checks, such as persuasive DNA evidence linking the accused and the victim, and a network of appeals and oversight panels to review the process.

But opponents still argued that no system could be foolproof, and they pointed to a spate of death-row inmates who have recently been found innocent.

Kirk Bloodsworth spent almost nine years in a Maryland prison, two of them on death row, before DNA tests helped win his release. Bloodsworth says he empathizes with victims and their families. But he says innocent suspects are often equally victimized by the death penalty.

"I was judged a child killer and rapist, and sentenced to die for a crime I didn't commit. And this is the Pandora's Box that I think Minnesotans will open if they decide to go into the future with this death penalty," he said.

Bloodsworth was joined by a cross-section of Minnesota religious leaders as well as public defenders. They argued both that it would be morally reprehensible and more expensive than alternatives such as life without parole. And their position ultimately carried the day.

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Image Sen. Mady Reiter

Sen. Dave Knutson of Burnsville, who was one of two Republicans who joined the panel's six DFLers to vote the plan down, says there are ways to toughen punishments for the state's worst offenders without resorting to execution.

"But the thing that I can't justify in my mind, or in the state that I live in or the society that I want to raise my kids in, is the intentional taking of a life as punishment," Knutson said.

Even before the final committee vote, Pawlenty had resigned himself to likely defeat. Lawmakers had remained cool to a death penalty plan ever since the idea was first floated late last year. Nevertheless, Pawlenty had urged lawmakers to allow Minnesota citizens to have the final say by putting the issue to a referendum.

Recent polls have shown popular support for some form of the death penalty, and the governor blamed legislators for obstructing that sentiment.

"It's clear to me a majority of Minnesotans support the bill. So once again we have legislators who think they know better, standing in the way of a constitutional amendment that the public supports," Pawlenty said.

The bill had also found heavy resistance in the GOP-dominated House. In an earlier House committee, the bill was debated but set aside without any action.

The Senate defeat is a heavier blow, and Republican chief author Mady Reiter of Shoreview acknowledged the issue was effectively over for the year. But, she says, she doesn't think the debate will completely fade from the public forum.

"If, in fact, young children, women, some men -- if they continue to be pulled off the street and they disappear, and it's turned out that there are predators in the area, there's going to be a hue and cry that will not be stopped. People just have to know that they're safe," Reiter said.

In response to those concerns, Senate DFLers have proposed tougher sentences for the state's worst sexual predators, which include potential lifetime sentences for repeat offenders.

House Republicans have taken a similar approach, but go one step further, adding life without the possibility of parole even for certain first-time offenders.

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