Hennepin County prosecutor in rape appeal removed over taunting e-mail

  • Article by: CHRIS SERRES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 26, 2014 - 9:46 AM

Attorney is on a medical leave and will not argue case to release serial offender Thomas Duvall from disputed treatment program.

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2012 file photo of George Widseth, assistant Hennepin County attorney

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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A Hennepin County prosecutor who argued for the release of a violent serial rapist has been removed from the case because of incendiary ­comments directed at a rival prosecutor.

Assistant Hennepin County Attorney George Widseth has taken a medical leave of absence until early April and will not be arguing on behalf of the county in the proposed release of Thomas Duvall, 58, from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP), a county spokesman said Tuesday.

Widseth has in recent months made a series of unusually personal attacks against state Attorney General Lori Swanson and Solicitor General Alan Gilbert, who is representing Swanson’s office in the case.

In an e-mail to Gilbert, Widseth said he was sending him an “article on ‘low T’ — it might help,” presumably a reference to low testosterone. Widseth ended the message with, “Yours in Christ,” according to court documents filed last week. The attorney general’s office called the reference “troubling,” given that Gilbert is Jewish.

A spokesman for the Hennepin County attorney’s office said Widseth was removed from the Duvall case as soon as the inflammatory e-mail became public. “Any time we would have an attorney making personal attacks on an opposing lawyer or officials in the attorney general’s office, we in this office would consider that wrong, unacceptable and unprofessional,” said spokesman Chuck Laszewski.

Widseth’s removal is the latest chapter in the drama around the proposed discharge of Duvall, who has been convicted three times of sexually assaulting teenage girls in the 1970s and 1980s. He has admitted to attacking at least 60 women, including a 17-year-old girl he raped while hitting her with a hammer.

His case has become highly politicized, coming just as Minnesota legislators consider possible reforms to the state’s controversial system of locking up sex offenders after their prison terms.

In a ruling last week, U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank called on legislators “to revise a system that is clearly broken.” Currently, 696 rapists, pedophiles and other sex offenders are committed indefinitely to prisonlike treatment centers in Moose Lake and St. Peter, in what many regard as a de facto life sentence because almost no one is ever released.

The debate over Duvall’s release is an example of how politically and emotionally charged the sex offender issue has become.

Late last year, GOP lawmakers lashed out at Gov. Mark Dayton for not having opposed the supervised discharge of Duvall, whose attacks all occurred shortly after he was released from prison. As public criticism intensified, Dayton ordered state officials to halt provisional releases of sex offenders until the Legislature can review the sex offender program.

“If your goal is to whip up the emotional intensity and the political consequences of addressing this issue, then [Duvall] is the perfect person for that,” said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “You couldn’t ask for a worst poster child” of sex offenders.

What Widseth said

As legislators feuded over his proposed release, the two prosecutors arguing his case engaged in their own war of words.

In October, Widseth sent a letter to the chief judge of a Supreme Court appeals panel asking that Duvall’s petition for release be granted. In an unusual request, Widseth also said the court should order Swanson to destroy any of Duvall’s medical records in her possession, arguing that she was not a party to the case.

Swanson then filed an affidavit from one of Duvall’s victims. The victim, who was raped repeatedly by Duvall over a two- to three-hour period in 1987, described a meeting with Widseth in August during which she “felt disregarded and shut down every time I tried to raise my concerns.”

Widseth appeared to take the criticism personally. After a November court hearing, he lashed out at Swanson before a crowd of reporters, saying, “I was putting away bad guys when Lori Swanson was still in law school.”

Later that month, Widseth sent a letter to the chief judge of the Supreme Court appeals panel, disputing that he had been insensitive toward one of Duvall’s victims. He referred to the accusation as a “personal attack” by Gilbert. “Mr. Gilbert’s calumny is itself shocking,” he wrote.

But it was a Dec. 3 e-mail in which Widseth appeared to taunt and ridicule Gilbert that got him removed from the case. In it, Widseth wrote, “Are you REALLY the best lawyer that Lori has? Seriously? I can not wait to spend time in court with you. Remember to bring your script and your minions.”

Widseth then wrote, “P.s., I am also sending you an article on ‘low T’ — it might help,” before signing it “Yours in Christ — George Widseth.”

After the e-mail came to light, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman personally apologized to Gilbert. The county attorney’s office launched an investigation into Widseth’s behavior, but has suspended the inquiry while he is on medical leave.

Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, said he expressed concern about “the tone” of Widseth’s e-mail in a conversation with Freeman.

Duvall case continues

Meanwhile, the Duvall case continues. The attorney general’s office asked the court last week to order the Department of Human Services (DHS) to produce e-mails and other correspondence currently held by Duvall. The attorney general’s office has also asked for Duvall’s “fantasy logs,” which reportedly contain his fantasies of sexual violence toward juveniles.

A five-day evidentiary ­hearing on Duvall’s proposed discharge, in which victims and experts will be allowed to testify, is scheduled to begin before the Supreme Court appeals panel on April 4.

The Hennepin County attorney’s office said it continues to support the recommendation of a DHS review board that concluded last year that Duvall had shown enough progress to warrant recommending that the Supreme Court appeals panel grant him a provisional discharge.

Rep. Kurt Zellers, a Republican from Maple Grove who is running for governor, said county and DHS officials “appear to be doubling down on a bad decision,” and he encouraged legislators to recall Duvall’s crimes as they weigh reforms to the sex offender program.

“I don’t know how you have a discussion about reforming the system without addressing what it is that these people have actually done,” Zellers said. “This was heinous.”

 

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308 Twitter: @chrisserres

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