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New Hampshire Results Increase Scrutiny On Klobuchar's History As Prosecutor


Senator Amy Klobuchar's presidential bid has gained momentum after her surprisingly strong finish in New Hampshire's Democratic primary. With that momentum comes scrutiny of her record. Klobuchar has been in the Senate since 2007. Before that, she was the chief prosecutor in Minnesota's biggest county.

Minnesota Public Radio's Brian Bakst joins me to talk about that part of her history. Hey, Brian.

BRIAN BAKST, BYLINE: Good afternoon.

KELLY: So why the focus now on Amy Klobuchar's time as a prosecutor? What do we need to know?

BAKST: Well, Klobuchar spent eight years as the most prominent prosecutor in Minnesota. Her office handled the most serious prosecutions in Minneapolis and those surrounding suburbs. And this was in the late 1990s through the mid-2000s, and she had a tough-on-crime approach. She boosted the number of career criminal prosecutions for burglars, car thieves and gang crimes. And she focused somewhat on juvenile offenses and backed the Minneapolis version of broken-windows policing. That's where they deploy officers to hot spots based on crime stats.

Back when she was campaigning in 1998, she described it like this.


AMY KLOBUCHAR: People tell me that we need to get back to the simple concept in our criminal justice system that when someone commits a crime, there will be a consequence. And the priorities that I have in the office are these - first of all, targeting the repeat and the violent offenders, getting them off the streets and keeping them off the streets. We've been targeting them for arrest - need to target them for prosecution.

BAKST: But now she's having to answer for the side effects, mainly disproportionate prosecution of minority offenders.

KELLY: I want to ask you about one conviction in particular that is back in the news. This was someone found guilty of killing an 11-year-old girl in a drive-by shooting. Would you walk us, Brian, through the facts of this case and why it feels newly relevant now?

BAKST: It involves a defendant named Myon Burnett - Burrell. He was 16 then and was accused of firing the bullet that killed a girl doing homework at her kitchen table. Burrell insisted he was innocent, but jailhouse informants and testimony from a single eyewitness factored heavily into his case. A first conviction was overturned on a technicality, but Burrell was found guilty again. And this was after Klobuchar left the prosecutor's office. But some of the evidence and testimony has been called into question while Burrell remains in prison. Klobuchar's been pressed a lot lately about what should happen now.

And listen to this exchange on ABC's "The View" this week between host Sunny Hostin and Klobuchar.


SUNNY HOSTIN: How do you defend something like that to someone like me who is the mother of a black boy, a black teenager? This case would be my worst nightmare.


KLOBUCHAR: Well, Sunny, I'll start with this. I've been very clear. All of the evidence needs to be immediately reviewed in that case - the past evidence and also any new evidence that has come forward.

KELLY: Quite an exchange there. Is there any evidence that this case is being reviewed again?

BAKST: We've gotten no indication that Burrell's case will get another look. A Hennepin County attorney spokesman said today that there won't be any additional comments from that office.

KELLY: Was she controversial at the time that she was a prosecutor? Were people of color then raising questions about her?

BAKST: Many community leaders fed up with nuisance crimes and worried about the lack of accountability were cheering her on, and she often made headlines for winning lengthy sentences and for taking on high-profile or white-collar defendants, too - a Court of Appeals judge and an embezzlement charge and a rape case brought against baseball great Kirby Puckett, who was acquitted. Despite only narrowly winning her first county attorney race, she didn't even have an opponent when it came time for reelection.

KELLY: Well, she has many opponents now for the Democratic nomination. Do we know what extent her legal record back then might factor into the presidential race now?

BAKST: Well, it's an issue she's having to address now that policing and criminal justice issues are front of mind for many Democratic voters. She likes to cite statistics showing that a drop in African American incarceration happened on her watch, but some of that stems from a change in how jailhouse admissions were tracked. Data we gathered show about two-thirds of people sent to prison during her time were black. But right now, she's barely registering with black and Hispanic voters. And so as the race shifts to more diverse states, she's going to have to answer for it, and her rivals are making her do so.

KELLY: That is Minnesota Public Radio reporter Brian Bakst. Thank you, Brian.

BAKST: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Bakst
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