Gov. lays out plans for death penalty

by Dan Haugen

Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced plans Tuesday to push for a constitutional amendment that would reinstate the death penalty for first-degree murder in Minnesota.

“As a dad and a governor, I am fed up with committers of heinous crimes in Minnesota,” Pawlenty said. “Minnesota needs the option of the death penalty for the worst of the worst criminals.”

Critics – including a few dozen chanting protesters outside the governor’s office Tuesday – attacked the death penalty as racist, cruel and costly.

Pawlenty said he has always supported the death penalty, but the November disappearance of University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin was the “tipping point” for his recent effort to reinstate it in Minnesota.

Pawlenty said that under his guidelines Minnesota’s death penalty would be one of the most cautious in the nation. The sentence would apply to first-degree murder cases involving the killing of public safety officials, multiple killings, sexual assaults or other “heinous, atrocious or cruel” conditions.

County attorneys would have the power to recommend the penalty. Their decisions would be peer-reviewed by a statewide capital punishment review commission. Once in court, juries would need to rule unanimously, and the trial judge would have to concur.

Kerri Allen, spokeswoman for the Minneapolis branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said these measures are not good enough.

“The death penalty has been proven to be disproportionately applied to people of color,” Allen said.

According to Census 2000 data, blacks make up 12 percent of the U.S. population. However, blacks comprised 43 percent of death row inmates in 2002, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Allen said the NAACP will make it a legislative priority this year to lobby against any type of death penalty reinstatement.

About 50 death penalty opponents gathered outside the governor’s office as he conducted his press conference inside.

In addition to moral opposition, the death penalty amendment also faces fiscal criticism.

Democratic Rep. Phyllis Kahn, who represents the neighborhoods surrounding the University, called Pawlenty’s plan “fiscal stupidity.”

“Unless you do the death penalty the way it is done in Texas (with a limited appeals process), it’s much more expensive than giving someone a life sentence without parole,” Kahn said, adding that it could be a difficult point to get across to the public.

“It’s too expensive,” Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner said. “There are a lot of legal procedures Ö a lot of appeals, and that’s a very expensive process.”

A 1998 Iowa Legislative Fiscal Bureau study found it costs, on average, $2.4 million to put a criminal to death from arrest to execution. By contrast, a life-in-prison conviction costs about $1.5 million from arrest to natural death in prison.

“A number of death penalty states have struggled with how to finance these cases,” Gaertner said. “It’s been a real issue. Some counties have almost gone bankrupt because of the cost of a single death penalty case.”