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In 1911, the death penalty in Minnesota was abolished. Prior to abolition, however, executions were carried out both by the federal and state government in Minnesota. In Mankato in 1862, the federal government hanged thirty-eight Sioux Indians during the Dakota Conflict, reportedly the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Between 1860 and 1906, the state of Minnesota executed twenty-seven people by hanging. The last state execution, which occurred in 1906, was a botched hanging - the defendant did not die instantly from a broken neck, but instead was hung for over fourteen minutes until death by suffocation occurred. In response to the public outcry, the Minnesota legislature succeeded in abolishing the death penalty.  Minnesota remains one of the nation's twelve abolitionist states.    

Recent developments
Despite the memory of Minnesota's last execution, the past decade has seen several attempts to revive the death penalty. Legislators introduced bills to reinstate the death penalty in the 1991-1992, 1995-1996, 1999-2000 and 2001 sessions.  In May 2003, H.F. 1602 was introduced in response to a triple murder in Long Prairie, Minnesota. If passed, the bill would amend the criminal code to impose the death penalty for first-degree murder. While H.F.1602 was introduced too late last session for action, the bill likely will be reintroduced in the 2004-05 legislative session.

Furthermore, federal prosecutors recently announced the arrest of Richard Oslund in Minnesota's first potential federal death penalty case.  All decisions to seek the death penalty in federal cases must be specifically approved by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.  U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger has yet to make a recommendation to Ashcroft as to whether to seek capital punishment. Even if Heffelfinger recommends against seeking the death penalty, Ashcroft has the power to mandate that he seek death.

Minnesota is approaching a critical political junction in its position on capital punishment. Although Minnesota has been an abolitionist state for nearly a century, a 2004 public opinion poll by the Star Tribune revealed that 44% of Minnesotans believe that murderers should face the death penalty, while 46% favor imprisonment. A small number of state legislators have been determined to bring back the death penalty despite its associated problems. Representative Lindner, one of the co-authors of H.F. 1602, was quoted as saying, "We call it a war on crime and in any kind of war there will be civilian casualties." In January 2004, Governor Tim Pawlenty announced his intention to seek reinstatement of the death penalty via constitutional amendment.

Minnesota Advocates' Past Work in Opposition to the Death Penalty
During the 1995-96 session, when legislators pushed a constitutional amendment related to the death penalty, Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights responded with a massive advocacy effort.  Minnesota Advocates recruited and coordinated witnesses to testify before the legislature about the very serious problems of bias, ineffective assistance of counsel, and the immense cost associated with the death penalty. The more than twenty witnesses included volunteer attorneys representing death row inmates, public defenders, prosecutors, academics, police, corrections officers, and individuals from women's groups and faith-based organizations. Thanks to their testimony and the coordinated efforts of many other local organizations, the bills were soundly defeated.

Reintroducing capital punishment is especially alarming as Minnesota has the largest disparity between black and white imprisonment rates than any other state.  According to a study by the Council on Crime and Justice, black defendants are almost twenty times more likely to be imprisoned than are white defendants in Minnesota. Coupled with the already discriminatory application of the death penalty-blacks who kill white victims are several times more likely to be sentenced to death than whites who kill black victims-capital punishment could pose a critical risk for minorities in Minnesota.

Capital punishment runs against Minnesota's 93-year history of abolition, as well as its commitment to human rights.  Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights will continue to work with other concerned groups and individuals to fight a reintroduction of the death penalty in Minnesota.

 Facts Sheet: Minnesota and the Death Penalty