Dispute about sex offender gets political

Published 1:56 pm Saturday, November 9, 2013

ST. PAUL — The fate of a convicted rapist up for release from Minnesota’s sex offender treatment program became a potential issue Friday in next year’s governor’s race.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, up for re-election next year, is at odds with his fellow Democrat, Attorney General Lori Swanson, who wants to block the state from releasing Thomas Duvall. Dayton is backing his human services commissioner, Lucinda Jesson, who doesn’t oppose Duvall’s provisional release from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program.

Dayton’s position drew fire from state Rep. Kurt Zellers, one of the Republicans vying to run against him next year. At a Capitol news conference, Zellers said he believes Duvall is still dangerous and that the state should keep him in custody indefinitely.

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Zellers, a former House speaker from Maple Grove, said the primary job of elected officials is to “protect the people you represent. Letting Mr. Duvall go would be failing in that duty.”

Minnesota’s treatment program allows offenders who finished prison sentences to be indefinitely confined. It’s the subject of a class action lawsuit by people who say they have little chance to go free even if they successfully participate in treatment. Only one person has ever obtained a successful conditional discharge from the 18-year-old program.

Eric Magnuson, a former state Supreme Court justice, has said the state is at risk of having a judge dismantle the program in a way that’s objectionable to state policymakers and residents. He’s leading a state task force to recommend alternatives to state legislators.

Duvall, 58, was convicted three times of sexually assaulting teenage girls. After finishing prison terms, he has been civilly committed to treatment since 1991. A Department of Human Services panel has recommended his supervised discharge, which is supported by his program treatment team. Jesson did not oppose that recommendation, but asked for an independent examination of Duvall before a hearing on his request before a panel of state judges.

Bob Hume, a spokesman for Dayton, said Zellers is wrong to suggest that Dayton or administration officials have the authority to hold such offenders for life. He also said it’s wrong to suggest that Duvall’s release is imminent, noting that the new examination would happen in January and that the judicial panel would have time to weigh the findings.

The administration plans to make recommendations to lawmakers ahead of next year’s session on possible legal changes related to sex offenders, Hume said.

Swanson opposes Duvall’s release, citing experts who as recently as 2012 found Duvall was still potentially dangerous. On Friday, Swanson’s office was before the judicial panel asking it to set an evidentiary hearing in the matter similar to a trial.

Zellers acknowledged the legal threat facing Minnesota’s program. But he said if it were struck down while he was governor, he would push for the state to fight releases on a case-by-case basis.

Zellers is one of four leading Republicans hoping to challenge Dayton next year.

Hennepin County Commission Jeff Johnson said he believed it would be a bad idea to release Duvall. But he said it’s wrong to politicize an issue that he said needs a bipartisan solution.

“If I were governor, I would be checking politics and press conferences at the door and working overtime with leaders from both parties to figure this out,” Johnson said. “The governor and the Legislature are going to need to find an alternative to the system we have or the court’s going to do it for us, and I guarantee we won’t like the way that looks.”

The other candidates, businessman Scott Honour and state Sen. Dave Thompson, sounded similar notes. Honour said Zellers had the opportunity to do more about the issue when he was House speaker — echoing a criticism leveled by Dayton’s spokesman.

“Clearly this is a dangerous person,” Thompson said. “But in the long term, we are going to have to confront what is potentially a legitimate constitutional challenge to our civil and criminal commitment laws.”