PIERRE, S.D. — South Dakota's attorney general — who nearly five months ago struck and killed a man with his car along a highway but did not identify the body until a morning later, thinking he'd hit a wild animal — appeared at a legislative committee hearing in Pierre on Wednesday, Feb. 10 to argue against lowering the criminal penalty for manslaughter, even though he himself is the subject of an investigation that could result in criminal charges filed against him any day.
Jason Ravnsborg, the state's Republican attorney general since 2019, spoke against House Bill 1185 in a House Judiciary committee hearing at the statehouse, saying he opposed any move to give judges less discretion in the case of first-degree manslaughter.
"I could give you examples of many cases," said Ravnsborg, "and I guess I'll just give on you, a gentleman named Rocky Blair."
Ravnsborg then spoke about an abduction, rape and murder case perpetrated by a Sioux Falls man in 1982, only days after the man was released on parole. The attorney general said "25 years" — the penalty cap proposed by the measure — wouldn't have been a harsh-enough penalty in that case.
Ravnsborg is facing possible vehicular homicide or second-degree manslaughter charges stemming from a now infamous incident along Highway 14 in Hyde County last September, when the Ford Taurus he was driving struck 55-year-old Joseph Boever, who was walking along the shoulder of the road after the Highmore man's pick-up had stalled.
A Department of Public Safety report found the attorney general failed "to keep in proper lane" and was "distracted."
But throughout testimony and committee discussion on Wednesday, no legislator raised Ravnsborg's pending charges as a possible conflict-of-interest in the attorney general's testimony on criminal penalties for distracted driving.
At one point, Sioux Falls attorney Randy Sample, who said he'd served as prosecutor for 22 years, described a distracted driving scenario in making his own case to decline the bill.
"I've had manslaughter cases where a kid was driving down Minnesota Avenue and texting and speeding at rush hour and he ends up swerving around and smashing into a couple of vehicles and he killed a guy on a motorcycle," said Sample, who acknowledged, "Now, that's not a life (imprisonment) case."
Currently, first-degree manslaughter in South Dakota carries a Class C felony penalty, allowing for up to life in prison. The measure brought by Rep. Tom Pischke, a Dell Rapids Republican, would change that penalty to a Class 2 felony, carrying a lighter penalty. The change would not impact the charges Ravnsborg may be brought up on.
Ultimately, the committee deferred the bill to the 41st day, parlance in Pierre, S.D., for killing the measure.
On Wednesday, University of South Dakota Law School Professor Tom Simmons told Forum News Service that he did not see anything improper in Ravnsborg's testimony before the committee, citing the South Dakota Rules of Professional Conduct.
"In the event that the government said, 'We want to increase the charges of manslaughter,'" and the attorney general didn't support this effort, said Simmons, "that would be a conflict. But, here, I don't see a conflict of interest."
Wednesday was not the first time Ravnsborg, who has stayed on the job since the crash, has appeared at legislative functions. He also attended a speech by Supreme Court Justice Steven Jensen and a Senate committee hearing on the death penalty in cases involving the killing of a public safety officer.
It's been five months since Ravnsborg's Saturday night collision with Boever. A state's attorney in Sully County has been tasked with the weighty job of whether to bring charges against the state's top law enforcement official.
Ravnsborg was returning to Pierre from a fundraising dinner in northeastern South Dakota, on Sat., Sept. 12. The DPS report stated that around 10:30 p.m. Ravnsborg's car traversed the north shoulder of the highway when striking Boever.