South Dakota Attorney General Takes Plea Deal, Avoiding Jail Time in Fatal Crash
Jason R. Ravnsborg, the South Dakota attorney general who struck and killed a man while driving home from a Republican Party dinner last year, pleaded no contest on Thursday to two misdemeanor charges he faced in connection with the case, his spokesman said on Thursday.
A plea deal allowed Mr. Ravnsborg to avoid a trial that had been scheduled for Thursday. He was fined $500 for each of the two misdemeanors, plus court fees, and a third misdemeanor charge was dropped, according to the spokesman, Michael Deaver.
Mr. Ravnsborg, a Republican, had been charged with careless driving, using a mobile electronic device while driving, and failing to stay in his lane on the night of the crash, which killed Joseph Boever, a 55-year-old pedestrian, on Sept. 12. The careless-driving charge was dropped.
The case has cast a long shadow over state politics in South Dakota. Officials from both sides of the aisle, including Kristi Noem, the Republican governor, have called on Mr. Ravnsborg to resign.
Mr. Deaver said Wednesday that Mr. Ravnsborg did not intend to step down.
“I ran to be your attorney general because I believe in the law; I believe in fairness, due process and doing what’s right,” Mr. Ravnsborg said in a statement on Thursday. “Now, having experienced the legal system from both sides, I renew my commitment to be transparent and responsive to the needs of the people of South Dakota.”
Ms. Noem said in a statement on Thursday that if Mr. Ravnsborg did not resign, the South Dakota Legislature should consider impeachment, adding that she had ordered the Department of Public Safety to share the case’s investigative file with the speaker of the state House of Representatives.
“Like many South Dakotans, I am not only disappointed in how this process was handled by prosecutors, but outraged at the result of today’s plea hearing and sentencing,” she said. “Ravnsborg has not accepted responsibility for the death of Joseph Boever and did not even appear in court today to face the charges or the Boever family. ”
According to The Associated Press, Mr. Boever’s family was frustrated that the attorney general did not attend Thursday’s hearing.
“Why, after having to wait nearly a year, do we not have the chance to face him?” Jane Boever, Mr. Boever’s sister, reportedly said on Thursday, adding that Mr. Ravnsborg had left her brother behind carelessly and that his punishment amounted to a “slap on the wrist.”
After the crash, Mr. Ravnsborg, who took office in January 2019, initially told the authorities that he had hit something that he believed was most likely a deer. Ms. Noem urged people to watch videos released by the state in February, which showed investigators confronting Mr. Ravnsborg.
That month, the governor said in a statement that with charges filed and the investigation over, “I believe the attorney general should resign.” Three police groups, including the South Dakota Sheriffs’ Association, also called on Mr. Ravnsborg to step down, citing a lack of confidence in his ability to serve as the state’s top law enforcement officer. And a bipartisan group of legislators filed a resolution proposing the possibility of impeaching Mr. Ravnsborg, writing that he “must be removed” from office.
Then, on Feb. 25, a judge issued a gag order requiring state officials to stop releasing evidence and to delete the videos.
On Wednesday, Jamie Smith, a Democrat who had sponsored the impeachment resolution, said that the possibility of any future impeachment efforts would depend on what happened with Mr. Ravnsborg’s case.
“I still don’t think he’s able to do his job effectively, and so we’re going to have to see,” he said. “This is a big cloud hanging over that office.”
In his statement on Thursday, Mr. Ravnsborg said that Mr. Boever’s death “weighs heavily on me and always will.”
“I’ve often wondered why the accident occurred and all the things that had to have happened to make our lives intersect,” he added. “I’ve wished thousands of times our paths would have crossed under different circumstances.”
Days after the crash, Mr. Ravnsborg said in a statement that he had personally found the body of Mr. Boever the morning after the accident. And in the two videos that were briefly released by the state, Mr. Ravnsborg told the story of what he said had happened on the night of the crash.
In the first video, from Sept. 14, Mr. Ravnsborg told investigators that he had been driving home alone from a Republican Party dinner on the night of Sept. 12 and that after passing through the town of Highmore, he had accelerated to about 67 miles per hour on U.S. Highway 14.
“And then, quite frankly, wham,” he said. “I hit, the incident happened. I never saw anything until the impact.” He said he had jumped out of the car and called 911. He then hung up, used his phone’s flashlight and looked around the highway and the ditch.
“I am thinking it is a deer at this point, but I did not see anything,” he told two investigators during the interview, adding that he did not see blood or fur from the impact, just debris from his car.
After the sheriff arrived, he made arrangements for a tow truck and lent Mr. Ravnsborg a vehicle so he could drive home.
The next morning, on his way to return the vehicle, Mr. Ravnsborg and a staff member stopped at the scene of the accident, where Mr. Ravnsborg said he found a body in a ditch. The body was later identified as Mr. Boever, a resident of Highmore.
When told by investigators in the first interview that they had found a broken pair of eyeglasses in his car, Mr. Ravnsborg could not say whether they belonged to him, even though he said he did not wear glasses.
In the second interview, on Sept. 30, Mr. Ravnsborg was told that the eyeglasses belonged to Mr. Boever. “That means his face came through your windshield,” one of the investigators said.
Mr. Ravnsborg maintained that he had not seen Mr. Boever that night.
Nick Nemec, one of Mr. Boever’s cousins, said the family had been distressed by what they heard in the videos. “It is even worse than we thought,” Mr. Nemec said in an interview shortly after the videos had been released.
Toxicology results showed no signs that Mr. Ravnsborg had been under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the crash, prosecutors have said. Mr. Boever’s family has questioned why Mr. Ravnsborg was not tested on the night of the collision.
During one of the interviews, Mr. Ravnsborg defended his conduct.
“I believe I did not do anything wrong, and I obviously replayed it in my mind about a thousand times,” he said. “I never saw it — now him, I have learned — or anything I hit, and I tried to react appropriately from there.”
Christine Hauser contributed reporting.