Death penalty becomes issue in AG race

GOP AG candidate Jeff Johnson
Jeff Johnson says the death penalty should be limited to convictions that are based on DNA evidence or an admission of guilt.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Minnesota abolished the death penalty in 1911 after a botched hanging. Ninety-five years later, the Republican candidate for state attorney general says he wants to bring back capital punishment. Jeff Johnson, a state representative from Plymouth, says if he's elected as the state's top lawyer he'll work to impose the death penalty in Minnesota for anyone convicted of murdering a child as part of a violent sexual crime.

"I think that the death penalty should, at the very least, be on the table in deciding how to punish someone who kills a child in the commission of a sex crime. I'm a strong believer in second chances, and in some cases third and fourth chances, but not when you kill a kid. I don't believe in that anymore," Johnson said.

Johnson says he hasn't yet written a specific bill, but it will have to include safeguards. He says the death penalty should be limited to convictions that are based on DNA evidence or an admission of guilt. As a legislator, Johnson supported a broader death penalty bill that failed to pass in the 2004 session.

"What I'm trying to do is, first of all is be realistic, and try to propose something that is relevant to what I think is one of the most important issues for the attorney general, which is sexual predators," he said.

DFL AG candidate Lori Swanson
DFL AG candidate Lori Swanson did not say whether she would advocate for the passage of death penalty legislation.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Johnson is not alone in his advocacy for the death penalty. Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who's running for re-election, announced his support for reinstating capital punishment two years ago after the kidnapping and murder of college student Dru Sjodin. The man convicted of that crime, Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., is facing a possible death sentence in North Dakota under federal law.

DFL candidate Lori Swanson is also talking tough about crime. Swanson, who is the state solicitor general, says life in prison looks too good for some violent criminals. But she has a lot of concerns about reinstating the death penalty.

"We've seen cases in other states, Illinois for example, where people have been placed on death row only to find out later on that they were innocent and they were wrongly placed on death row. So, where I'm at on that is if we could have a bill that would have adequate safeguards in it to ensure that innocent people would not be put to death, I could be supportive of that bill. It would, however, have to have those safeguards because it would be a travesty to have an innocent person put to death," Swanson said.

Swanson did not say whether she would advocate for the passage of death penalty legislation.

John James, the Independence Party candidate for attorney general is taking a firm stand against capital punishment, under any circumstances. James, a former state revenue commissioner, says mistakes are inevitable, and the money needed to carry out executions could be better spent elsewhere. He says life in prison without parole is sufficient punishment.

"To make a person spend every day of the rest of his life reflecting on the horrible thing he did and why he is therefore in prison and can never get out it seems to me adds up to a greater quantum of punishment than actually taking that person's life," James said.

James says he thinks the death penalty highlights the differences among the three major party candidates for attorney general.

Public opinion polls have shown deep divisions on the issue among Minnesota voters. An MPR poll two years ago found 46 percent of the state's likely voters opposed capital punishment, compared to 44 percent who supported it.

Before you go...

MPR News is dedicated to bringing you clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives when we need it most. We rely on your help to do this. Your donation has the power to keep MPR News strong and accessible to all during this crisis and beyond.