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Continued: Prosecutors call on Capitol for protection

  • Article by: JENNIFER BROOKS , Star Tribune
  • Last update: January 27, 2012 - 11:05 AM

Under fire and under threat, Minnesota's prosecutors want better protection from the state -- including the right to arm themselves.

Prosecutors lined up Thursday at the State Capitol to support new legislation that would toughen penalties for killing or assaulting a prosecutor and also waive the state's current ban on armed prosecutors.

Among those testifying was Cook County Attorney Tim Scannell, who was shot in his courthouse office last month by a convicted man he had prosecuted.

"I don't think that getting shot makes me brave, I don't think that going back to work makes me brave," said Scannell, who is back to work part time, still recovering from gunshot wounds to the chest and leg. "I'm not going tell you it doesn't make me nervous. It does. But we're trying to take steps to address the issues."

Those steps come in legislation proposed by Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, which would allow prosecutors to arm themselves during the workday if they choose and if their courthouse rules permit it. Current law does not permit anyone to carry a weapon into court unless the judge allows it.

Cornish's bill, approved in committee Thursday, also calls for first-degree criminal prosecution of anyone who assaults or kills a prosecutor who is engaged in official duties.

Those attacks and threats are increasingly common, law enforcement officials say.

In Grand Marais, Minn., on Dec. 15, Daniel Schlienz walked out of the courtroom where a jury had just found him guilty of criminal sexual assault, took a gun from his car and re-entered the building. He shot Scannell and a witness who had testified against him.

Cornish said he has been accused of pushing the bill as a knee-jerk reaction to the incident, but he said the legislation was already drafted and under review when Scannell was attacked.

"It just emphasized how endangered the atmosphere and environment is in our courts now, the vulnerability there," Cornish said. House GOP leaders have indicated that they expect to get the bill to a floor vote quickly.

Prosecutors have been attacked, threatened, had contracts taken out on their lives and shots fired at their homes. But state law prohibits prosecutors -- as it does most state employees -- from carrying firearms while on duty even if they have a carry permit.

Meanwhile, judges, public defenders and private attorneys can obtain carry permits and bring their weapons anywhere a private citizen can. That does not include most county courthouses.

"It's a form of discrimination," said Assistant Blue Earth County Attorney Chris Rovney, who survived having a contract taken out on his life by a disgruntled drug dealer in 2006. "We do not have the same rights as any other citizen."

Unanimous support

Gun bills are usually a hot-button issue at the Capitol, but this one slid through the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Committee on Thursday with unanimous support. The only concerns voiced came from a few DFL committee members and gun control advocates who wanted to ensure that the legislation would not interfere with judges' rights to ban guns from the courtroom.

Right now, judges have the right to say if and where guns can be carried on courthouse grounds. Courtrooms themselves are the exclusive domain of armed bailiffs, who are responsible for security.

Heather Martens, executive director of Protect Minnesota: Working to End Gun Violence, wants the legislation amended to ensure that it would not usurp judges' rights to ban guns from the courthouse.

"Our main concern here is the potential, however unintended, that this law could be taken to mean that guns are no longer banned from courthouses," she said.

Martens, who supports the tougher penalties outlined in the bill, questioned whether arming prosecutors would make them any safer. She pointed to the 2003 murder of a New York City councilman, who was gunned down in the council chambers by a political rival, even though he was carrying a legal, concealed weapon.

Rovney testified that he didn't want to carry his gun into the courthouse, but he very much wished he had a gun with him on the long walk in to work, back when he had been marked for assassination.

But that's tricky when state law bars prosecutors from carrying weapons while on duty, which some say could mean any time they answer a call from the office on their cellphones.

"He wanted to kill me, he wanted to kill the judge, he wanted to kill the head of the drug task force who wasn't even involved in this case. Fortunately, he wasn't that intelligent," said Rovney, noting that the hit man the suspect tried to hire turned out to be a police informant.

Cornish's bill is backed by the Minnesota County Attorneys Association and the Minnesota Sheriffs' Association.

But just because prosecutors might be allowed to carry handguns doesn't mean they will.

"I'm not a gun guy," said Scannell, who helped fight off his assailant by hand, in spite of the bullet lodged an inch from his heart. "I support it, but I'm not skilled in that way."

Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049

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