Minnesota lawyers consider death penalty

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The discovery of the beaten and bullet-riddled body of Paul Antonich near Cloquet forced authorities to consider a new issue for Minnesota: Should the men charged with killing him face the death penalty?
The slaying of the 17-year-old from Two Harbors in August was the second recent case to open the possibility of a death sentence in Minnesota, one of 12 states that forbid capital punishment in state courts.
Congress in 1994 expanded the federal death penalty to apply to 60 offenses, up from two. The change means people convicted in federal court of committing the 60 crimes in Minnesota could be executed — something that hasn’t happened in the state since 1911.
Authorities steered the Antonich prosecution away from the death penalty, a possibility that arose because the law applies to carjacking involving a killing. Authorities say Antonich was attacked while driving in Duluth after he bumped his assailants’ car from behind. His car and body were found the next day in Carlton County, and five men are being prosecuted in state court.
The other case involved two men charged last year with the murder of a Los Angeles drug dealer in St. Paul as part of a conspiracy to distribute cocaine. U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno ruled out the death penalty in that case, and the men are serving life sentences with no chance for parole.
Although the expanded federal death penalty hasn’t been used in Minnesota yet, it has become a point of friction between two high-level prosecutors in the state.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said he will do anything within his legal powers to block his cases from ending in federal death sentences.
But the chief federal prosecutor for Minnesota, U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug, said he must use the law where it is appropriate.
“Are we out beating the bushes for death penalty cases? No. Will we take potentially a capital case where there is a substantial federal interest? Yes, we will follow the law,” Lillehaug said.
First, though, federal authorities would need to step into a case. And in Hennepin County — which has the state’s highest number of murders — federal prosecutors apparently are not welcome in cases that might lead to a death sentence.
“There is a strong feeling in our office … that the determination of whether a death penalty should happen should be decided by our Legislature, not the federal government,” Freeman said.
Freeman contends that death penalty cases cost too much, fall disproportionately on racial minorities and fail to deter crime.
Lillehaug said he does not need permission from any county attorney to prosecute any case in which there is federal jurisdiction. “Where there is overlapping jurisdiction, we very much prefer a process of cooperation and consultation,” he said.
The differences between Freeman and Lillehaug reflect a division that runs through Minnesota’s legal community, said Judge Dale Wolf of Carlton County District Court. Some county prosecutors welcome the federal government as a partner, but others see it as an intruder, especially when it comes to the death penalty.