Friday, December 05, 2003


Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty's recent comments about the death penalty and the Dru Sjodin disappearance have caused quite a kerfuffle among the hand-wringers, who are legion in these icy precincts. (The wringing generates frictional heat, I guess.)

First, the comments (from a story in Wednesday's St. Paul Pioneer Press):
"I think I speak for most Minnesotans — as a Minnesotan, as governor, as dad of two young daughters: I'm fed up," he said at a news conference, reacting to the arrest of a convicted sexual offender in the Nov. 22 disappearance of University of North Dakota senior Dru Sjodin.

Pawlenty said Sjodin's case was the "tipping point" in his decision.

* * *

He said he wanted juries to have the option of imposing the death penalty for "heinous crimes," such as murders of police officers and children, or in cases of murder or attempted murder where there is also a rape or attempted rape.
Next, the kerfuffle. As noted by Saint Paul at Fraters Libertas yesterday, Star Tribune columnists Doug Grow and Nick Coleman both found Pawlenty's remarks "chilling" (Grow), chided Republicans for "flapping [their] lips" (Coleman) about how "if we have to kill 'em to get 'em off the street, that can be arranged" (Coleman's arch paraphrase of ... something, if only the fevered voices in his head), and drew an express comparison to "how lynch mobs worked" (Grow).

Saint Paul aptly noted how the Strib's commitment to a diversity of voices consists of giving one of their columnar sinecures to a bleeding heart from Minneapolis and another to a bleeding heart from St. Paul. But I think he let them off too easy.

Grow can't be serious about this lynch mob business, can he? Does he really think that an elected governor urging elected legislators to consider and enact a law is "how lynch mobs worked"? Sounds to me like the way democratic government works. If this had anything to do with how lynch mobs worked, we'd be cutting down an actual person--or persons--from an actual tree right now, not abstractly debating whether a not-yet-reconvened legislature should pass a hypothetical bill.

As for lips, there's flapping aplenty on all sides. Critics are saying that Pawlenty is engaging in shameless politicking here, that he's twisting a sad and visceral story to his nefarious, moustache-twirling advantage (I know he doesn't have a moustache, but work with me here people, work with me). Why politicians should be pilloried for playing politics has always been beyond me. Besides, what's so awful about choosing a moment when the death penalty is likely to be on many people's minds to have a discussion about whether Minnesota should have a death penalty? Don't circumstances like these make it more rather than less likely that a death-penalty debate will be the vigorous, engaging, and fully participatory one that people like Grow and Coleman (purport to) want public issues to receive?

And where's the shameless politicking in this (also from the PiPress article)?
"There are people on both sides of the political continuum of thought who oppose this for very different reasons. And so it will be an uphill battle but I will push it," said Pawlenty.
Acknowledging the existence of a wide range of views that cuts across party lines yet willing to take a position that is clear and thus is bound to be opposed by many--goddamn you, Pawlenty! Pandering, partisan hack!

There's more. Again from the PiPress article (emphasis mine):
It is unclear how much of an issue Pawlenty plans to make of the death penalty when the Legislature reconvenes in February. He has not stressed the issue in the past, and on Tuesday the death penalty was not raised in his printed statements, nor did he focus on the proposal except when asked to do so by reporters.

But some suspect that may have been by design.

"Timing is everything in politics," said professor Steven Schier, chairman of the political science department at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.
So. He's shamelessly politicking if he does discuss capital punishment, and he's shamelessly politicking if he doesn't. Makes you wonder which way the lynch mob is headed.

POSTSCRIPT: There's a further irony in all this, mention of which I've heard only once, by local criminal defense attorney Joe Friedberg on Dan Barreiro's KFAN radio show Thursday evening (though since I haven't been paying especially close attention, others may have made this point too). If Sjodin is in fact dead and her body is in Minnesota--two big ifs, but given the amount of time that's passed since Sjodin's disappearance and the apparent Minnesota-centric focus of the police investigation, these ifs seem increasingly likely to shed their potentiality--then whoever ends up being charged probably will face the death penalty.

Section 1201 of Title 18 of the United States Code sets forth the federal offense of kidnapping, and provides in relevant part as follows:
[w]hoever unlawfully seizes, confines, inveigles, decoys, kidnaps, abducts, or carries away and holds for ransom or reward or otherwise any person . . . when . . . the person is willfully transported in interstate or foreign commerce, regardless of whether the person was alive when transported across a State boundary if the person was alive when the transportation began . . . shall be punished by imprisonment for any term of years or for life and, if the death of any person results, shall be punished by death or life imprisonment.
Of course, it would be up to the Justice Department both to assert jurisdiction and to opt to seek the death penalty, but Friedberg says that Ashcroft et al. are eager to do so whenever the state in question (like North Dakota and Minnesota both) does not itself have the death penalty. A high-profile case like this one would seem to be the perfect cherry to pick. (I have no idea whether Friedberg is right about Ashcroft's modus operandi here, but I have at least one loyal reader from inside the belly of the beast--yes you, John--who I'm sure can set me straight.)


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