Washington County Attorney Pete Orput dies at 66

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput died Sunday at his home in Stillwater after a recent cancer diagnosis, county officials announced. He was 66.

Orput, a history teacher turned lawyer, served as Washington County’s top prosecutor for 11 years. He built a reputation as a tough-on-crime prosecutor who also understood the importance of creating a path forward for defendants struggling with mental health and addiction.

“He was committed to holding criminals accountable … but he understood when to give people a second chance,” said Washington County Assistant Attorney Kevin Magnuson. “He would say, ‘You can’t incarcerate your way out of all these problems.’ “

Orput established a veterans court and diversion programs for mental health and substance addiction. He aggressively pursued sex traffickers and drug dealers and led a statewide effort to sue the manufacturers and distributors of opium-based painkillers.

In recent years, Orput focused on system reforms including helping nonviolent defendants who served their time expunge their records and urging county leaders to reform bail practices to make it less onerous on the poor and more effective at preventing crime.

Orput had recently e-mailed staff and notified friends about his diagnosis. Orput went to the doctor with lingering COVID-19 symptoms in March and was diagnosed with cancer.

“It’s so devastating and sad,” said Ramsey County Attorney and friend John Choi.

Choi said Orput told him just last week he was battling stage 4 cancer of the stomach and other internal organs.

“We all thought we would have time to connect. It just happened so abruptly over the weekend,” Choi said.

Orput announced in January that he would not seek re-election for a fourth term in office and planned to retire at the end of the year. That announcement came more than a year after he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

“It’s sometimes thankless, but I think it’s just been the greatest opportunity of my life,” he said of his time as county attorney.

Orput was known for a direct and unvarnished speaking style that resonated with jurors and constituents.

“They say genius is the ability to take the complex and make it simple. Pete was extremely intelligent. He would have a sophisticated trial strategy, but you would never know it. The way things unfolded was just so easy and natural. He was that same plain-talking person,” Magnuson said. “He could relate to a jury like no one else.”

He also had a reputation for being accessible to attorneys, other elected officials, reporters and constituents.

“He was such a straight shooter and just a really passionate person,” said Choi, who struck up a friendship with Orput after both were elected as county attorneys in 2010.

In 2019, Choi and Orput partnered on an expungement program to help people clean up their records and improve their lives. The program was so successful, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison launched a statewide initiative, HelpSealMyRecord.org, a year later.

“I viewed Pete as an ally working toward justice reform and improving the criminal justice system,” Choi said.

“His desire to both help those in need, yet hold people accountable, it was just amazing,” said Washington County Board Chair Wayne Johnson.

Johnson said Orput’s reputation for giving straight answers was “refreshing.”

“He was very upfront explaining why he thought something didn’t work and how he thought we could do better,” Johnson said.

Orput grew up in St. Paul. He graduated from Minnehaha Academy.

Orput enlisted in the U.S. Marines in 1973 and served in Vietnam. After his discharge as a lance corporal in 1976, he used the GI Bill to earn a teaching degree from the University of Minnesota.

He taught high school history in Minneapolis before graduating from William Mitchell College of Law in 1988.

Orput served as an assistant county attorney for Hennepin, Dakota, Mille Lacs and Carver counties. He also taught police science as an adjunct professor at St. Mary’s University.

He worked for the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, served as general counsel for the state Department of Corrections, and prosecuted violent crime for the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office.

After he was elected Washington County attorney in 2010, Orput gained a reputation for pursuing steep criminal charges against heroin dealers and charging them with third-degree murder in overdose deaths. He worked hard to get treatment for addicts who had fallen into the criminal justice system.

“I think we’re very compassionate with those who have become addicted,” he said at one point, “but we’re less so with those who are feeding what’s still going on.”

Orput helped lead an effort in 2017 by county attorneys to sue the manufacturers and distributors of opium-based painkillers. The suit settled last year for more than $300 million — money intended to cover state, county and city costs in fighting the opioid epidemic.

He helped create the veterans courts in Hennepin and Washington counties. And Orput targeted human trafficking, saying it was far more common in Minnesota than most people realized. He was instrumental in the creation of the Minnesota Human Trafficking Task Force.

Orput was the special prosecutor in the case of Byron Smith, the Little Falls man convicted in 2014 of fatally shooting two unarmed teens who had broken into his home on Thanksgiving Day 2012.

Last year, Orput was targeted by activists who wanted him to toughen the criminal charges against former Brooklyn Center police officer Kimberly Potter in the shooting death of Daunte Wright. Orput was originally assigned the Hennepin County case under a system enacted by metro-area county attorneys that sought to eliminate the appearance of bias in the prosecution of police shootings.

He eventually returned the case and a key staffer in his office resigned, citing the vitriol surrounding Potter’s prosecution. Potter received a two-year sentence in February after she was convicted of first- and second-degree manslaughter.

Orput said in January that the stress of the job had become more of a concern since he had been fighting Parkinson’s and that the COVID-19 pandemic had added significantly to the backlog of cases his office was handling, triggering more stress. He said he planned to spend some of his retirement volunteering.

“You know when you need to leave,” he said.

Orput is survived by his wife, Tami, six children and six grandchildren. The County Board will provide information on the process related to the county attorney position at a future date.

Magnuson said Orput was a manager “that had your back.”

“He gave people a lot of responsibility. He trusted people to do what he had hired them to do,” Magnuson said. “He was just an extraordinary human being. We lost this tremendous advocate for justice in this devastatingly short period of time.”