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Family wins vote for daughter

ST. PAUL - Travis Johnson's elbows rested on the seat back in front of him, his hands propping up his head.

His wife, Lynn Johnson, sat solemnly watching Minnesota House debate that she said often "went over my head." In front of her rested a legislative directory she picked up from time to time to identify each representative as one after another rose to speak.

Next to her was her mother, Dianne Herman, sitting in silence, the drone of lawmakers' speeches in the background.

They sat alone in a House gallery waiting, waiting and waiting a bit longer for the House public safety bill to come up.

Each wore a button with a picture of the Johnsons' daughter, Emily, holding a stuffed lamb. The long-delayed bill the trio waited to follow was in many ways their proposal, named after their daughter killed in June of 2006.

The proposal would allow 13-year-olds charged with committing murder to be tried as adults, a year younger than now allowed. A 13-year-old was convicted on charges he assaulted 2-year-old Emily Lynn Johnson at a Fergus Falls day care center; she died a day after the assault.

Her parents and grandmother, Fergus Falls' residents, sat through much of a 10-hour debate on an unrelated bill, waiting for the provision in honor of Emily Lynn.

"Our daughter took one for the team, if you will," Travis Johnson said. "It is the least we could do."

The vigil was worth it. On a voice vote, representatives approved an amendment allowing prosecutors to try 13-year-olds as adults when charged with murder and other crimes involving death or serious injury. Courts give adults harsher sentences than juveniles.

To an unusually quiet House chamber at 2 a.m. Wednesday, Rep. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, urged colleagues to accept the amendment for parents who "try to deal with pain that, heaven forbid, they have to deal with in the future."

With the Johnsons and Herman looking on from the second-floor gallery, Westrom said the amendment he and Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, put forward "would at least be a little justice."

After Westrom's two-minute speech and no debate, House members voted with only a few "no" votes heard.

"It was the greatest two minutes," Herman said.

"It's one step," Lynn Johnson added moments after the speech. "That was good, (but) it is still a battle."

Attention now turns to House and Senate negotiators who will determine what the Legislature sends to Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Senators have not approved a similar provision.

It was the family's second trip to the Capitol. A month ago, they visited legislators in an attempt to gather support for their bill.

While many Republicans offered support, Democratic committee chairmen would not schedule the "Emily's Law" bill to be heard by committee members.

"Public safety should not be party line," Travis Johnson said.

"We thought this just made sense," Lynn Johnson added.

The full public safety funding bill passed 96-34 at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday. It provides more than $2 billion for public safety and court programs.

The measure increases domestic and sexual violence victim help and adds protection for children against Internet predators. It also provides help for police investigating copper thefts.

Before Westrom - who graduated from high school with Lynn Johnson - offered his amendment, Lynn Johnson delivered 35 thank-you notes to representatives who had said they supported the bill, which has generated a record number of e-mails to some legislators.

It was important to the girl's parents and grandmother to sit in the House gallery, in plain view of representatives, "just to show we are pretty passionate about it," Travis Johnson said.

To show their passion, the family made a quick trip to St. Paul only to sit through a slow debate while awaiting the public safety bill. They were notified at 2 p.m. Tuesday that the "Emily's Law" measure would be taken up later in the day. Lynn Johnson and Herman left Fergus Falls, picking up Travis Johnson, who was coaching a baseball game in Sauk Rapids.

It is important for the measure to pass this year, the Johnsons said.

"What if it happens to another family?" Travis Johnson asked.

Herman added that youths like the one convicted of killing her granddaughter should not be allowed "upon a Virginia Tech campus," referring to this week's shooting rampage that left 33 dead.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.