Opponents condemn proposal to reinstate death penalty

by Stephanie Kudrle

Death penalty opponents rallied at the Capitol on Thursday following a committee hearing on a bill to reinstate the penalty in Minnesota.

Religious clergy, legislators and murder victims’ groups spoke at the rally to denounce the bill and promote alternatives.

Legislators debated the bill during the committee hearing. Death penalty supporters said the bill was well researched and would uphold justice, but opponents said it discriminates and is expensive.

The bill was introduced to the House this session. It would allow the state to use the death penalty for specific first-degree murder cases including those involving sexual assault or the death of a police officer, according to the bill.

Juveniles and the mentally ill would be excluded from the death penalty, said Robert Kittle, assistant deputy researcher for the House, at the meeting. And there must be DNA evidence linking individuals to a crime, he said.

“There will have to be proof beyond a reasonable doubt to make sure no innocent defendants are convicted,” Kittle said.

Some legislators who oppose the death penalty said it can promote racial and economic discrimination.

Rep. Cy Thao, DFL-St. Paul, said other states have shown that the death penalty discriminates against minorities and it would be hard for Minnesota to counteract that.

“We will have racial discrimination here as well,” Thao said.

Kittle said the bill has safeguards in place to reduce discrimination against the poor and minorities.

Legislators also had financial concerns with reinstating the death penalty.

Rep. Keith Ellison, DFL-Minneapolis, said with the recent funding cuts in many departments and areas across the state, it would be irresponsible to add extra costs to state’s budget.

“Our responsibility is to keep an eye on the budget,” Ellison said. “It’s one of the things we have sworn to do.”

Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, who sponsored the bill, said he does not know how much it would cost to have the death penalty in Minnesota.

He said his district and Minnesotans in general support the death penalty.

“Citizens of Minnesota would like to see it happen,” Hackbarth said. “It’s the Legislature that is blocking it.”

Mary Streufert, whose daughter was raped and murdered in 1992, said the death penalty should not be used for revenge. Streufert spoke at the Capitol on Thursday.

“The death penalty could not replace our daughter,” Streufert said. “The death penalty is just another premeditated, intended killing.”

University global studies junior Eliesa Woggon, who was also at the Capitol on Thursday, said the state does not have the right to kill people, even in circumstances comparable to the recent abduction of Dru Sjodin in North Dakota.

Sue Bleess, president of pro-capital-punishment group Fight for Justice, said the death penalty is necessary under some circumstances.

She asked legislators to not let their personal beliefs get in the way of justice, and said Minnesotans should choose whether to reinstate it.

The death penalty, abolished in Minnesota in 1911, is currently used in 38 states, according to Minnesotans Against the Death Penalty.

For the bill to become law, voters must approve an amendment to the state constitution allowing the use of the death penalty. An amendment could be placed on November’s ballot if the bill passes, legislators said.

If the bill and amendment are approved, criminals could be sentenced to death starting in 2007.