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Death penalty on agenda

ST. PAUL -- Gov. Tim Pawlenty enlisted Jim Stuedemann in his quest to reinstate Minnesota's death penalty after 88 years. Stuedemann's daughter, Jolene, was stabbed with a screwdriver 31 times in their suburban Woodbury home in July 2000. His dau...

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ST. PAUL -- Gov. Tim Pawlenty enlisted Jim Stuedemann in his quest to reinstate Minnesota's death penalty after 88 years.

Stuedemann's daughter, Jolene, was stabbed with a screwdriver 31 times in their suburban Woodbury home in July 2000. His daughter was "brutally raped and murdered," Stuedemann said.

"Anyone in our position ... I think would feel the same way I do -- an eye for an eye," a quiet Stuedemann said, standing beside Pawlenty Tuesday.

Pawlenty used Stuedemann's story to illustrate the need for the death penalty in a limited number of murder cases.

"Minnesota needs to have for the worst of the worst offenders ... the option of the death penalty," Pawlenty said.

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"Too many heinous crimes are being committed in Minnesota," the governor added. "The punishment needs to fit the crime."

The Republican governor's plan, which calls for a constitutional amendment, would allow capital punishment only under limited circumstances. It would be the "most modern and restrictive death penalty in the U.S.," he said.

Democrats immediately said the death penalty proposal is Pawlenty's effort to cover up the fact that Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. was released on his watch.

Rodriguez, 50, of Crookston, Minn., last month was charged with kidnapping 22-year-old Dru Sjodin from a Grand Forks, N.D., parking lot. It was seven months after Rodriguez was released from prison, where the twice-convicted rapist served time for a 1980 attack on a Crookston street.

"The governor calls news conferences to proclaim that he is tough on crime, but the reality is that the Minnesota Department of Corrections (under Pawlenty) has allowed over 20 sexual predators to walk out of prison into society," Attorney General Mike Hatch said.

The death penalty is the most controversial of Pawlenty's anti-crime proposals, and one many lawmakers say has no chance of passing in this year's legislative session, which begins Monday.

The Rodriguez case drew Minnesota politicians together on the need for closer supervision of sex offenders once they leave prison, as well as a desire for longer sentences.

But they are not united on the death penalty.

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Pawlenty's proposal would put a constitutional amendment before legislators. If they pass the amendment, it would go to voters for the final decision.

However, the public vote would only establish the death penalty in broad terms. Legislators would decide the details, and could change those details whenever they want.

Pawlenty's idea is to execute a prisoner only if DNA evidence links the defendant to a first-degree murder. To kick in the death penalty, the murder also would have to include at least one other factor:

- Murder of more than one person

- Death of a public safety official

- Prove to be "heinous, atrocious or cruel"

- Involve sexual assault or rape

Pawlenty also would require a jury to unanimously agree on a death sentence, with the judge's approval and a state Supreme Court review.

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No mentally disabled or juvenile prisoner could be executed, Pawlenty said. The death penalty also would be forbidden for prisoners convicted on the testimony of a single witness.

The governor said he has placed enough restrictions on executions that innocent people should not face the death chamber.

But a couple dozen protesters outside Pawlenty's announcement disagreed. A sign one carried proclaimed: "An eye for an eye leaves the world blind."

Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, said legislators should decide the issue, and not leave it up to the public.

"So he wants to abdicate the Legislature's responsibility?" Langseth asked. "I think we are elected for a purpose."

The death penalty has no chance of passing the Senate, especially since key Republican leaders join most Democrats in opposing it, Langseth said.

Rep. Doug Fuller, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said he thinks House Republicans lean toward supporting capital punishment. The Bemidji Republican gave the proposal a 50-50 chance in the House, while Pawlenty said the effort will be difficult.

The fiscally conservative Pawlenty agreed with opponents that the death penalty may be more expensive than life imprisonment. However, he added, "it would be worth it."

Minnesota abolished capital punishment starting in 1916, five years after the Ramsey County sheriff botched a hanging. The sheriff did not realize that a rope and a neck both stretch in such situations, and it took several minutes for the prisoner to die.

The death penalty may not have universal backing, but longer sentences for sex offenders appear to be quite popular among lawmakers. There also is widespread agreement that sex offenders need to be watched after they get out of prison.

Pawlenty and Corrections Commissioner Joan Fabian recommend spending $2.3 million to hire 18 more agents to track sex offenders. Part of the money would be used for electronic bracelets offenders wear on their ankles that allow officials to track their every move.

The global positioning system bracelets would be in communication with equipment that could alert officials if an offender strayed from the area he was supposed remain in, and if he neared a place -- such as a school -- he was supposed to avoid.

"This is new technology for us," Fabian said.

Last month, Pawlenty suggested that the bracelets would allow the public to track sex offenders. However, Fabian said the technology is not ready for that.

She said it may not be a good idea for another reason: Vigilantes could take matters into their own hands and attack sex offenders.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Don Davis at (651) 290-0707

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