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Read more about the 2004-05 legislative session

last updated February 24, 2004

In December 2003, following the arrest of a convicted sex offender in relation to the disappearance of a Minnesota woman studying at the University of North Dakota, Governor Pawlenty stated that he was “fed up” and publicly added his support to the movement to bring back the death penalty. Governor Pawlenty’s statement propelled the issue onto the front page of newspapers throughout the state and raised the stakes for the 2004 legislative session. Pawlenty, who sought reinstatement through voter referendum on a state constitutional amendment, claimed his proposed plan would be “the most modern and cautious” death penalty in the nation. Under Pawlenty’s plan, the death penalty would only apply to the most heinous first-degree murders. Purported safeguards in the proposal included requiring a DNA “genetic fingerprint,” peer review of a county attorney’s recommendation to seek the death penalty, review of all cases by the Minnesota Supreme Court, and “the most humane means of execution available.” In response, anti-death penalty advocates noted that no system can be completely free from error and that there are many other reasons to keep the death penalty out of Minnesota, not the least of which is cost. Reinstating the death penalty would move Minnesota out of step with the majority of the industrialized world, which continues to move toward complete abolition.

In February 2004, the House Judiciary Policy and Finance Committee considered House File 1602 [H.F. 1602], a death penalty bill introduced in May 2003 by Republican Rep. Tom Hackbarth of Cedar. H.F. 1602 was originally drafted to reinstate the death penalty in Minnesota by statute, but was revised to propose a constitutional amendment generally authorizing the death penalty for murder in the first degree. This bill also included the “modern and cautious” circumstances under which the death penalty would be imposed in Minnesota if voters approved such an amendment. For example, the bill provided the death penalty would only apply to first-degree murders involving at least one of twenty-three specified aggravating circumstances, such as murders in which the victim was a police officer. This provision ostensibly ensured only the most heinous crimes would be death eligible offenses in Minnesota. However, far from presenting “the most modern and cautious” death penalty plan in the nation, the bill listed far more circumstances capable of triggering the death penalty than many statutes found in long-term pro-death penalty states. For example, Indiana’s death penalty statute—under which ninety-one persons have been sentenced to death since 1977—lists only sixteen aggravating circumstances capable of triggering capital punishment. Although the bill further provided the death penalty could not be imposed in cases where the defendant was a minor at the time of the crime, the defendant pleads guilty to murder with a lesser sentence or life imprisonment, substantial mitigating circumstances are established, or the defendant’s mental or physical condition calls for leniency, these provisions are neither “modern” nor “cautious.” Such provisions are standard in many death penalty statutes and ultimately leave much to the subjective discretion of the jury, doing little to prevent prejudicial and arbitrary decision-making in death penalty cases.

H.F. 1602 also attempted to establish procedural safeguards to minimize error and ensure “humane” treatment in death penalty cases. For example, the bill required the state to appoint two public defenders for all indigent, unrepresented capital defendants. Further, the death penalty could only be imposed by a unanimous jury decision, and appeal of death sentences would be automatic. The bill also required the state supreme court to review every death sentence within sixty days and establish checklists for trial courts hearing capital cases. Finally, the bill provided that defendants would be executed by lethal injection, and called for the appointment of a capital punishment commission. The 31-member body would be charged with creating a “best practices capital punishment model policy” for Minnesota to follow.

Despite these so-called safeguards, history demonstrates that no state has been able to perfect the capital punishment system. States have been sentencing innocent people to death since the reintroduction of the death penalty in 1972. In fact, 114 people have been exonerated and released from death row, and one study identified 23 executions with strong indications that the defendants were innocent (H. Bedeau & M. Radelet, “Miscarriages of Justice in Potentially Capital Cases” Stanford Law Review, 1987).

In addition, racial bias is prevalent in the capital punishment system, and statistics show that minorities have constituted 43% of all executions, even though they only comprise 25% of the population. Already, Minnesota has the highest disparity between black and white incarceration rates than any other state. Imposing a capital punishment scheme where blacks are nearly twenty times more likely to be imprisoned than whites would only exacerbate an already existing racial factor in Minnesota’s criminal justice system. Furthermore, deciding which crimes to seek death for would be subject to capriciousness. Section 3(4)(b)(5) allows for the death penalty if the “murder was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel, manifesting exceptional depravity,” a description which renders determination of a death-eligible crime highly arbitrary. In addition, these procedural safeguards would impose staggering costs on the state. For instance, a fiscal note prepared for the first version of H.F. 1602 estimated that in Minnesota’s seven metro counties, the cost of prosecuting death penalty cases—which is up to 70% greater than the cost of prosecuting murder cases where the death penalty is not sought—would be $1 million annually. In the remaining eighty rural counties, the Attorney General’s office would undertake prosecution efforts at an estimated cost of $1.2 million. Additional costs unique to death penalty cases, such as mitigation experts and DNA analysis, were projected to reach over $2 million each year. Moreover, the state supreme court would be allotted $1.1 million to finance its added responsibilities in 2007. Beyond this list of annual costs, which is by no means exhaustive, the fiscal note also indicated Minnesota would initially pay $5.8 million to construct special units to house 22 capital prisoners, and another $300,000 for each lethal injection administered. These costs would have diverted funds from an already strained state budget; an alarming prospect for the state of Minnesota, which stands to lose approximately one-fourth of its public defenders in August 2004 if a $7.6 million budget shortfall is not corrected.

Given the costs and other problems inherent in capital punishment, it is not surprising the attempt to reinstate the death penalty met with little success in Minnesota. The House Committee on Judiciary Policy and Finance held a hearing on H.F.1602 on February 26. Representative Hackbarth introduced the bill, along with Bob Kittel, Assistant Deputy Revisor. Two witnesses testified for the death penalty, including a friend of a murder victim and a former Florida public defender. Witnesses prepared to testify against the death penalty included murder victims’ families, public defenders, lawyers, and religious leaders. Mary Streufert, James Lym and Joe Callahan testified about their experiences as family members of murder victims. Bishops Harrington and Rogness, as part of a religious panel that included Rabbi Brusso and Reverend Everett, spoke about the religious opposition to the death penalty. Additional opponents of the death penalty were prepared to testify, but the bill was tabled and the meeting adjourned. The chair of the House Judiciary Policy and Finance Committee is Rep. Steve Smith of Mound, MN.

A companion bill to H.F. 1602, Senate File 1860, was introduced in February 2004 by Senator Mady Reiter of Shoreview and was under consideration in the Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee. Friends and family of murder victims testified for the death penalty, as did a police chief from Pequot Lakes, the hometown of a murder victim. Fourteen witnesses testified against the death penalty, including religious leaders, murder victims’ families, lawyers, a relative of an executed person, and an exoneree from death row. Each side was allotted forty-five minutes to testify. After some debate and questions, the Senate voted 8-2 against the death penalty.

The Advocates for Human Rights urges concerned individuals to contact the governor, their representatives, as well as members of the House and Senate committees considering death penalty legislation to express their opposition to a death penalty in Minnesota.