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Read more about the 1995-96 legislative session

Human Rights Observer, January 1996, Vol. VIII, No. 8

Minnesota House Hears Testimony from Former Death Row Warden

"However we do it - in the name of justice, in the name of law and order, in the name of retribution - you...do not have the right to ask me, as a prison official, to bloody my hands with an innocent person's blood..."

Those were the words of Donald Cabana, the former warden of the Mississippi State Prison.  Cabana was one of over thirty witnesses who gave testimony before the Judiciary Committee of the Minnesota House of Representatives at a special public hearing on capital punishment on December 7, 1995.  The hearing, which was convened by Judiciary Committee Chair Wesley J. Skoglund at St. Johns' University in Collegeville, received great public attention, with over 100 members of the public attending. 

Cabana spoke eloquently about the tremendous emotional toll of having presided over the execution of Edward Earl Johnson, who was executed in 1987 and who, evidence now shows, was probably innocent.  Cabana, now a professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, spoke not only about emotional costs of capital punishment, but also about the economic costs, lack of deterrent value and racial biases in the administration of the death penalty.  Later in the hearing, Minnesota Commission of Corrections Frank Wood echoed Cabana's testimony, and then went on to tell the Committee that he would resign if forced to preside over an execution. 

In addition Cabana and Wood, a broad spectrum of witnesses spoke against capital punishment, drawing on a variety of experiences and beliefs.  Representatives of five different religious denominations spoke out against the death penalty, telling the legislators that their faiths could not condone the state killing of any individual, no matter what crime he or she had committed.

The Committee also heard testimony from The Advocates volunteer attorneys Sandra Babcock of the Hennepin County Public Defender's Office, John Bessler of Faegre & Benson, Bruce Hanley of Hanley & Dejoras, Tom Johnson of Gray, Plant, Mooty, Mooty & Bennett, and James Volling of Faegre & Benson.  These attorneys all provide pro bono representation to indigent death row inmates in states outside of Minnesota.  Based on their first-hand experience with capital litigation, they were able to explain to the Committee that the death penalty process is embedded with flaws and biases which could not be avoided if capital punishment were ever to return to Minnesota. 

In addition to the witnesses present, the Committee heard a statement from Donald Streufert (Read by Representative Skoglund).  In his letter to the Committee, Mr. Streufert, whose daughter was murdered in 1991, wrote, "My position on the death penalty has remained unchanged.  I oppose the adoption of a death penalty.  For me, the death penalty is one more demonstration of violence and serves no positive purpose."

Testifying in support of the death penalty were Dan O'Keefe of the St. Cloud Police Department, and Aaron Fredrikson and Jim Cooksey, whose daughter was murdered in 1990.  The death penalty proponents were led by Representative Hilda Betterman of Brandon, who advocates that Minnesota readopts capital punishment.  Minnesota, which is one of twelve states without a death penalty, abolished capital punishment in 1911. 

Among the other groups who sent representatives to the hearing to testify against capital punishment were: Central Minnesota Task Force on Battered Women, Citizens Council, Feminists for Life, and Joint Religious Legislative Coalition.