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2 finally face Minnesota's toughest sentence for sex crimes

ST. PAUL (AP) -- For the first time in modern Minnesota history, two men accused of sex crimes could end up sentenced to prison until they die.

Prosecutors in Dakota and Ramsey counties are preparing to use a 2005 law aimed at using the state's severest punishment -- life with no chance of parole -- on the most violent and extreme sex offenders. Minnesota has never before allowed such a sentence for a sex offender who didn't kill his victim.

Lawmakers around the country have ratched up penalties against sex crimes in recent years. In Minnesota, the 2003 rape and murder of college student Dru Sjodin by a convicted sex offender rallied lawmakers who wanted to put dangerous sexual predators behind bars for good.

But once the publicity dies down, the swift and severe punishment promised by those laws doesn't always materialize. More than two years after Minnesota extended its harshest penalty to sex crimes, The Associated Press found only two pending prosecutions that seek to use it.

"We see it pretty commonly nationwide -- lots of attention, lots of chest pounding and proud rhetoric from the politicians, 'We're trying to keep you safe,' but a much more complicated story as these laws go into effect," said Douglas Berman, a sentencing expert at Ohio State University.

For example, in Florida, one of the toughest states for sex offenders, predators who have sex with children routinely get life in prison without parole. But for lesser charges of molestation, a newer state law that requires 25 years to life is used mainly as a bargaining tool, said Dennis Nicewander, an assistant state attorney.

A Missouri law requires life in prison without parole for child rapists who use force, but Brian Keedy, who heads the state's Office of Prosecution Services, said he didn't know of any prosecutions under that law. The law doesn't cover statutory rape cases, where a predator grooms a victim and doesn't have to use force.

Minnesota's law allows life without parole for sex crimes featuring "heinous elements" such as torture, mutilation, multiple victims or "extreme inhumane conditions" that could lead to "severe ongoing mental, emotional or psychological harm." (First-time offenders aren't eligible unless their crimes involve two such factors.)

Prosecutors say few cases fit the law, and proving all the necessary elements of a crime to a jury can be difficult. Some said they also weigh whether to put victims through a trial when they could still send a perpetrator away for a long time in a plea deal.

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom says he has settled for pleas in other cases, but he's pursuing life without parole for Robert O. Bollett, a 43-year-old repeat sex offender now charged with molesting two boys. Multiple victims is one factor listed in the law.

And in Ramsey County, prosecutors want life without parole for Gari Lamont Stewart, 26, who faces attempted murder and other charges in the assault of a St. Paul couple in June.

Stewart has no previous record as a sex offender, but a criminal complaint says he woke the couple in their apartment, tried to suffocate and stab the man, raped the woman twice, set the apartment on fire, then forced the woman to withdraw money from a cash machine. She was eventually dropped off at a hospital.

"This ultimate penalty was carved out for a very specific kind of offender and, fortunately, they are rare," said Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner.

Stewart's grandmother, Diana Stewart, said she hopes for a plea deal. The possibility of her grandson being locked up for the rest of his life hasn't sunk in.

"I really can't fathom the idea that that should even happen," she said. "I can't even imagine that that could happen."

A woman who answered the phone at a number listed for Bollett declined to comment.

Prosecutors in other Minnesota counties said they would use the law's life-without-parole provision if they get a solid case that fits the description.

"In the right case, as the system shakes out, we will," said Paul Scoggin, managing attorney for violent crimes in the Hennepin County Attorney's office.

State Rep. Kurt Zellers, who pushed the crackdown on sex crimes, said tougher punishments may have driven some sexual predators from Minnesota. He hopes the state won't see another case like Sjodin's slaying.

"The fact that we haven't had one of those cases, I'm very glad," said Zellers, R-Maple Grove. "I hope that the law had something to do with it."