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This 2017 file photo shows the Pexton Building, surrounded by barbed wire fencing, at the Minnesota Sex Offender Program in St. Peter. (AP file photo: Jim Mone)
This 2017 file photo shows the Pexton Building, surrounded by barbed wire fencing, at the Minnesota Sex Offender Program in St. Peter. (AP file photo: Jim Mone)

Bar Buzz: Better Off Dead? Nah….

He figured he’d be Better Off Dead. The Minnesota Court of Appeals didn’t think so.

In an unpublished Dec. 30 ruling, the appeals court ruled that a District Court made no error in denying sex offender Hollis John Larson’s bid to change his name to “Better Off Dead.”

Larson, civilly committed to Minnesota’s Sex Offender Program since 2008, contended that the new name would better accord with his professed religion—a heady, Unitarian-style mixture of Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism and agnosticism.

Larson also contended that, as Mr. Dead, he would be better able to declare his personal philosophy and exercise his freedom of speech, according to the ruling. Anoka County, the jurisdiction that prosecuted him as a sex offender, objected. It contended the change might compromise public safety.

The Carlton County District Court denied Larson’s request on Dec. 19, 2018, ruling that he failed to show that refusing the name change violated his constitutional rights. The District Court also ruled that Larson’s chosen moniker would be misleading and confusing.

The Court of Appeals agreed. “Better Off Dead,” Court of Appeals Judge Peter M. Reyes, Jr., wrote for the unanimous panel, is an “idiom” that contains no pronouns. That makes it “an inherently misleading name.”

“We can infer from the district court’s order that it agreed that granting appellant’s name change would burden public safety, and it did not find appellant credible,” Reyes wrote. “We defer to the district court’s determinations of credibility.”

Nor were Reyes and fellow appellate judges Michelle A. Larkin and Randall J. Slieter swayed by Larson’s religious argument. Larson argued that, under his religion, there is no other way to “achieve reconciliation with the divine” except by escaping “the cycles of birth, life, death and rebirth by being and remaining dead.”

“Hence,” Reyes notes, “the name ‘Better Off Dead.’”

The District Court found that expression connects to no particular faith or belief, and the Court of Appeals found no reason to disagree. “We infer from the court’s conclusion that it did not find appellant credible and as a result did not believe he sincerely held his belief,” Reyes wrote. “We defer to this credibility determination.”

All of Larson’s other arguments—including his insistence that the District Court conceded his constitutional infringement claim by allowing his case to proceed in forma pauperis—were also shot down in turn.

So it would appear that Mr. Dead must sally forth in land of the living.

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About Kevin Featherly

Kevin Featherly, who joined BridgeTower Media in mid-2016, is a journalist and former freelance writer who has covered politics, law, business, technology and popular culture for publications and websites in the Twin Cities and nationally since the mid-1990s.

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