Lashing out at what he called the “political circus” surrounding the proposed release of a violent serial rapist from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, Gov. Mark Dayton ordered state officials to suspend future discharges until the Legislature reviews the issue.

Dayton said he has directed the state Department of Human Services to oppose any future petitions by sexual offenders for release until state legislators review Minnesota’s controversial system for confining violent sex offenders to indefinite detainment in high-security state facilities. He also put on hold plans to move about a dozen civilly committed sex offenders to a small state facility in Cambridge.

Dayton’s directive does not affect the case of Thomas Duvall, 58, a serial rapist who has been convicted on three occasions of sexually assaulting teenage girls. Dayton repeated his pledge not to oppose the provisional discharge of Duvall, whose case is still pending before a state Supreme Court appeals panel.

Dayton, who is up for re-election next year, has drawn fire for not opposing the supervised discharge of Duvall, whose attacks all occurred shortly after he was released from prison.

“The political partisanship made it clear this was going to be an issue seized upon and abused,” Dayton said at a news conference Wednesday. “We just can’t proceed in that kind of environment.”

Dayton’s opponents wasted little time going on the attack, accusing him of ignoring the concerns of Duvall’s victims while avoiding politically difficult decisions on what to do with nearly 700 sex offenders who finished their prison sentences but were civilly committed to the state sexual offender treatment program after a judge deemed them too dangerous to release.

The governor’s order could be rendered moot by a federal court case filed by offenders, who say continuing their confinement in the sexual offender program after they’ve already completed their prison sentences violates their constitutional rights. Only one person has ever been provisionally discharged from Minnesota’s sexual offender program in its 18-year history.

Upcoming arguments

On Dec. 18, a U.S. District Court judge in St. Paul will begin hearing arguments on the constitutionality of Minnesota’s sex offender program.

If the judge rules that Minnesota’s sex offender program is unconstitutional, then the state could be forced to make sweeping changes to its system for committing sex offenders. These changes could include the possible discharge of sex offenders from high-security state facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter to less-restrictive home settings. A ruling on the case could come as early as mid-January.

“This is a case of the governor clearly kicking the can down the road,” said Dan Gustafson, the lead court-appointed attorney in the class action lawsuit. “The political figures in this state, whether it be the governor or the Legislature or the attorney general, have always said, ‘We will do whatever we can to keep these people locked up and never let them go.’ But that’s not what the constitution contemplates.”

An internal panel at DHS, which oversees the sex offender program, has recommended a provisional discharge for Duvall, saying that he met the criteria. DHS Commissioner Lucinda Jesson has not opposed that recommendation, but asked for an independent examination of Duvall.

Duvall admitted to a court expert that he has had “up to 100 hands-on victims” and up to double that number in total victims, according to court records. In a horrific assault in 1987, Duvall tied up one of his victims with an electrical cord and then raped her repeatedly while hitting her with a hammer. As recently as 2012, Duvall was considered “a high risk” to sexually offend again, according to court records.

Rep. Kurt Zellers, a former House speaker from Maple Grove who is running for governor, said Dayton’s decision not to oppose the discharge of Duvall is insensitive to survivors of his many assaults. “The moms that I meet, whether it’s at dance lessons or coffee or church, are asking me, ‘Why the hell would the governor let this guy out?’ ” Zellers said. “For the governor to call this a ‘political circus’ is an affront to those victims” of Duvall, he said.

In a letter to Jesson, Dayton said the Legislature should review the degrees of criminal sexual misconduct and the penalties for those crimes, as well as Minnesota’s system for committing sexual offenders to indefinite confinement after they finish their prison terms.

“As a father and a grandfather, my emotional reaction to some of the history of these [sex-offender] cases is, you know, they should never walk away,” Dayton said. “But that’s not what the law says and our responsibility as public officials is to uphold and carry out the law.”

Cambridge resident Mara Renier, who helped organize a petition urging state officials to reconsider moving sex offenders to Cambridge, said she expects the federal courts — not Dayton or the Legislature — to ultimately determine the future of Minnesota’s sex offender program.

“Until we hear what the courts say on this issue,” Renier said, “then I don’t think any of us can rest easy.”


Twitter: @chrisserres