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Death penalty politics enters the governor's race

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Gov. Mark Dayton and Jeff Johnson
Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican candidate Jeff Johnson.
AP, MPR News file

Minnesotans haven't heard a governor pledge support for the death penalty in over a decade, but if Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson wins in November, that could change.

Johnson, who first proposed reinstating capital punishment for some violent crimes during his unsuccessful bid for attorney general in 2006, said he still supports it. His views contrast with those of Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat who does not think Minnesota needs the death penalty.

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When Johnson was a state legislator, he supported a broad death penalty bill that failed to pass during the 2004 session. That was the year then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty pushed to reinstate capital punishment, following the kidnapping and murder of college student Dru Sjodin.

During his bid for attorney general two years later, Johnson narrowed his death penalty focus to those convicted of murdering a child as part of a sex crime. At the time, he described it as "proper punishment."

"I think it's a question of allowing a jury of someone's peers to have that as an option," said Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner. "Might it be a deterrent? Yes, but that would not be my reason for proposing it. It's an issue of justice."

Johnson is not bringing up the death penalty this year as he campaigns for governor, and he said it's not one of his top priorities. But in a recent interview, Johnson said his position on the issue hasn't changed.

"I would still support the death penalty for someone who kills a child as part of a sex crime," he said. "It's not something that I'm going to advocate as governor. I've got some pretty specific goals and that's not one of them. But it's something I would support if it happened to come up."

Capital punishment is just one of many issues where Johnson and Dayton, who is pursuing a second term, have differing views.

Dayton is not flatly opposed to the death penalty. As a U.S. senator, he voted to expand the use of the federal death penalty for acts of terrorism and the killing of law enforcement personnel.

"Well, I'd say there are circumstances where personally I think, yes, that person deserves the death penalty for a terrible crime committed," the governor said.

But Dayton is not interested in ending Minnesota's century-long prohibition on capital punishment. For one thing, Dayton said after comparing Minnesota's relatively low murder rate to the higher rates in death penalty states, he's not convinced that it's a deterrent. He said he's also concerned about the impact of lengthy appeals on victims' families and the cost to the state.

"From no death penalty to a death penalty in Minnesota would be an enormous undertaking, a very costly undertaking," he said. "We'd need a special prison facility. We'd need a special execution chamber. The question is, who is that benefiting?"

Minnesota abolished capital punishment in 1911, five years after a botched hanging that would be the state's last execution. 

There are currently 32 states with a death penalty. During the past decade, the list shrunk by six states, largely due to concerns over wrongful executions.

Hannah Nicollet, the Independence Party candidate for governor, is strongly opposed to capital punishment. She said she would never enact such a law. Nicollet said the state should lock up dangerous criminals, not kill them.

"I would not want to have that kind of mistake on the hands of law enforcement," Nicollet said. "We've had a lot of people executed over the years who've been exonerated after the fact. I wouldn't want to be responsible for that as a state." 

Legislators have also shown little appetite for bringing back the death penalty. There have been several bills introduced over the years, usually in the wake of high-profile crimes, but they haven't made much headway. That was the case in 2004, when despite Pawlenty's public support, a Minnesota Senate committee soundly rejected a bill to put the death penalty question to voters as a constitutional amendment.