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Senate votes to give prosecutors a rebuttal

ST. PAUL (AP) — In a vote that could change a 19th-century Minnesota law, the state Senate voted to give criminal prosecutors the last word in trials.
“Victims have to be remembered in this process,” Sen. Doug Johnson said on Tuesday before the Senate approved the bill 45-16.
Currently, prosecutors give their closing arguments, then the defense presents theirs. Prosecutors are given rebuttal opportunities only if a judge determines the defense misstates a law or fact or made an inflammatory or prejudicial comment.
The Senate bill would automatically give prosecutors a rebuttal, which would be limited to the topics brought up by the defense.
Johnson, DFL-Tower, noted that the family of Paul Antonich lives in his district. The senator presented a letter from the Two Harbors family that said, “The pain we feel as victims of a violent crime is not describable in any words in any language on this earth.”
“The nightmare never ends,” said the letter, which encouraged passage of the rebuttal bill.
Antonich, 17, was abducted last fall after he rear-ended a car at a red light in Duluth. His body was found in the trunk of his car in a water-filled ditch on a remote part of the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation. Five men are awaiting trial on murder charges.
Sen. Tom Neuville, R-Northfield and a lawyer, argued against the rebuttal change.
“About the only advantage the defense has going into the case is the presumption of innocence and the right to argue last,” Neuville said.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Randy Kelly, DFL-St. Paul, said he has been trying to pass the prosecutor’s rebuttal for 10 years, but this was the first Senate vote.
“We do, in fact, have the system that’s more skewed toward the defense,” Kelly said. “We’re simply coming in line with how other states do it, and the federal system.”
The House last week passed a somewhat weaker bill giving prosecutors an opportunity for rebuttal in limited cases. Kelly said he is hopeful some form of rebuttal will come out of a Senate-House conference committee.
The bill has the support of Attorney General Hubert H. Humphrey III, who said Minnesota is the only state that doesn’t give the prosecution a rebuttal.
“Allowing the defendant to have the last word is a problem because it allows trial by surprise, encourages gamesmanship and does not give the jury a fully developed presentation of the case,” Humphrey wrote in a letter of support.
But Sen. Allan Spear, who 10 years ago backed the change, said there is no need for it.
“I’m not convinced that the system is broke,” he said.

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