Awareness week to spur debate on capital punishment

Amy Hackbarth

In the wake of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s recent proposal to reintroduce the death penalty, several University student groups will hold the second annual death penalty awareness week.

Starting today, speakers will share their personal and professional experiences with the death penalty in a series of talks against capital punishment, said Jennifer Fischer, president of the Amnesty International-Legal Support Network’s University chapter.

Pawlenty’s proposal to bring the death penalty back to Minnesota will hit the Senate today.

Sen. Mady Reiter, R-Shoreview, will introduce the bill, which would allow a statewide referendum to reinstate capital punishment for a select number of first-degree murder crimes.

“Over the last several years we have seen there are people who are in fact morally bankrupt,” she said. “They know right from wrong and they will still commit wrong.”

In an attempt to foster debate, speakers at the University this week include the father of a woman killed in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing who opposed the execution of convicted bomber Timothy McVeigh.

An Illinois man who spent three years in prison on death row will also lead discussions. He was convicted for the murder of his parents, a charge he successfully appealed and was pardoned for in 2002.

Minneapolis attorneys Joe Margulies and Bruce Manning will speak about their professional experiences defending people on death row.

Fischer said several student groups established the awareness week to implore the University community to think critically about the penalty.

“For some people, the gut reaction about the death penalty is ‘Yeah, if you take a life, a life should be taken,’ ” she said. “We want people to make a decision beyond that gut reaction.”

Fischer questioned Pawlenty’s call to bring back capital punishment for first-degree murder when other states are debating to rescind the penalty. Currently 38 states have the death penalty.

“Why do we think we can do it so much better than all these other states that don’t think they can do it fairly?” she asked.

After a string of murders – including the slayings of William Schwartz, 88, and his 50-year-old daughter in a northeast Minneapolis burglary last spring – Reiter said she drafted a bill to bring back the death penalty to answer the cries for justice in her district.

“We have swung too far in favor of the criminals’ rights and I think it’s time to bring it back,” she said.

If the choice goes to Minnesota voters, she thinks they will approve its return.

“It is time for the victims and their families and friends to have some justice in this debate,” she said.

But legislators’ efforts to bring back the death penalty, Fischer said, lend a sense of urgency to the opponents’ fight.

“When you think about someone being tortured in another country, it’s very abstract,” she said. “But when you talk about bringing the death penalty back to the state after almost 100 years, that brings it closer to home.”

– K.C. Howard contributed to this report