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Minn. lawmakers mull stricter penalties on prosecutor attacks

ST. PAUL - Prosecutors should not be threatened, Dakota County Attorney Jim Backstrom says, and a bill Minnesota lawmakers are considering could help prevent that.

ST. PAUL - Prosecutors should not be threatened, Dakota County Attorney Jim Backstrom says, and a bill Minnesota lawmakers are considering could help prevent that.

Telling a House committee that his own life was threatened last year, Backstrom said Tuesday that people facing charges often dislike prosecutors, similar to their feelings about law enforcement officers. A bill the committee passed on to another panel would place the crime of attacking or killing a prosecutor on par with a similar action against law enforcement officers and prison guards.

"The prosecutor too often becomes the focus of a defendant's rage against society," Backstrom said.

The bill by Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, is in response to the December 2011 shooting of Cook County Attorney Tim Scannell.

The attorney, a witness and a bailiff were injured in the northeastern Minnesota courthouse. A defendant who had just been convicted of sexual assault was charged, and later died in jail.

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Cornish's bill only applies to prosecutors, people such as county and city attorneys as well as those in the state attorney general and federal district attorney's offices. It would not increase penalties for attacks on bailiffs, witnesses or judges.

Backstrom said he thought penalties in attacks on judges should be raised.

Public Safety Chairman Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, questioned adding more attacks that would draw harsher penalties.

"When do we stop adding?" he asked.

Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-Hopkins, said the bill would not apply in a case like in Texas, where a prosecutor was attacked on his way to work. It only would apply when a prosecutor is on the job.

"It may not go far enough," Simon said of the bill.

Killing a prosecutor would bring life in prison, while attacking one would bring a 10- to 20-year penalty. Now, an attack sentence could draw as little as a two-year sentence.

A similar bill overwhelmingly passed the Minnesota House last year, but failed in the Senate.

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