FORT PIERRE, SD — South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg on Thursday pleaded no contest to a pair of traffic charges over an accident last year that killed a pedestrian, avoiding jail time despite bitter complaints from the family of the victim that he was punished too lightly for actions they called “unforgivable.”
Circuit Judge John Brown had little leeway to impose a prison sentence. Instead, he fined the state’s top law enforcement officer $500 for each count plus $3,742 court costs. Brown also ordered the Republican to “do a major public service event” in each of the next five years near Joseph Boever’s death date, granting a request from the Boever family. But he put that on hold pending a final ruling after Ravnsborg’s lawyer objected that it wasn’t legal.
Ravnsborg said in a statement after the hearing that he plans to remain in office. The plea covered the criminal portion of a case that led Governor Kristi Noem — a fellow Republican — and law enforcement groups in the state to demand his resignation. But he still faces a probable lawsuit from Boever’s widow and a possible impeachment attempt.
Ravnsborg’s statement accused “partisan opportunists” of exploiting the situation, saying they “made up rumors and conspiracy theories and made statements that directly contradicted the evidence agreed upon by all sides”.
Noem then insisted in a statement that the legislature was considering impeachment proceedings and said she had given the Speaker of the House a copy of the investigation file. impeachment proceedings stopped in February after the judge barred state officials from revealing details of the investigation. Lawmakers then indicated they could resume after the criminal case ends.
The Attorney General was driving home to Pierre from a political fundraising drive on Sept. 12 when he punched Boever, who was walking along the side of a highway. In a 911 call after the crash, Ravnsborg was initially unsure what he had hit and told a dispatcher it might have been a deer. He said he did not realize he was beating a man until he returned to the scene of the accident the following day and discovered the body of Boever, 55.
Ravnsborg did not advocate illegally changing lanes and using a phone while driving, each carrying a maximum penalty of up to 30 days in prison and a $500 fine. Prosecutors dropped a careless driving warrant.
Ravnsborg was not present at the hearing – he did not have to and was represented by his lawyer, Tim Rensch. That made Boever’s family angry.
“After almost a year of waiting, why don’t we have the chance to face him?” Boever’s sister, Jane Boever, asked the court. She said, “his cowardly behavior leaves us frustrated.”
She said her brother was “left untidy” the night he died. She accused Ravnsborg of hitting her brother and then using his position and resources to sue. She said he has shown no remorse, only “arrogance towards the law.”
Jane Boever called the punishment ‘a slap on the wrist’.
“Our brother has been in the ditch for 12 hours,” she said. “This is unforgivable.”
Boever’s widow, Jennifer Boever, said Ravnsborg’s “actions are incomprehensible and … cannot be forgiven”.
Rensch hit back hard at the family’s criticism, calling the attorney general an “honorable man.” Rensch said Ravsnborg had been consistent from the start that he simply didn’t see Boever. And he noted that the case “was not a murder case, and it is not a manslaughter case.”
“Accidents happen, people die. It shouldn’t happen. Nobody wants anyone to die,” he said.
Rensch told reporters after the hearing that Ravnsborg had fully cooperated with the investigators by conducting two interviews and having his phones analyzed.
“Basically, just take your shirt off and say, ‘Here I am, bring it on.’ I will answer everything you have, and that’s what this man did,” Rensch said.
Beadle County Attorney General Michael Moore, one of the prosecutors, agreed that the Attorney General had cooperated. He was also satisfied with Ravnsborg’s sentence and the investigation into the crash.
“Because of who it was and the striking nature of the case, the investigation was much more thorough,” he said.
After a months-long investigation led prosecutors to charge Ravnsborg with the three crimes in February, Noem exerted maximum pressure on Ravnsborg to resign and released videos of investigators questioning him. They revealed gruesome details, including that detectives believed Boever’s body had crashed into Ravnsborg’s windshield with such force that part of his glasses ended up in the back seat of Ravnsborg’s car.
Prosecutors said Ravnsborg was on his phone about a minute before the crash, but phone records showed it was locked at the time of the crash. Ravnsborg told the researchers that: the last thing he remembered before the impact was turning off the radio and look at the speedometer.
A toxicology test conducted about 15 hours after the crash showed no alcohol in Ravnsborg’s system, and people who attended the fundraiser said he hadn’t consumed any alcohol.
Ravnsborg adamantly denied doing anything wrong. He insisted he had no idea he was beating a man until he returned to the scene of the accident and that he is worthy of remaining the state’s top law enforcement officer.
“Joe’s death weighs heavily on me and always will,” Ravnsborg said in his statement. “I’ve often wondered why the accident happened and what all had to happen for our lives to intersect.”
Ravnsborg’s insistence to remain in office has opened a rift among Republicans, with him retaining support in some GOP circles. The attorney general has been seen at provincial fairs in recent weeks as workspaces for local Republican groups.
But popular pastor Marty Jackley is already active for his old job and has won the support of most state prosecutors. Political parties will select attorney general candidates at conventions across the state next year.
Ravnsborg built his political rise on personal connections in the party. It was his dutiful presence at local GOP events like the one he returned from when he found Boever that drove him from being an outsider winning the Republican nomination for attorney general in 2018.
Boever’s family said they hope Ravnsborg is somehow ousted from office.
“It is not too late for the state legislature to resume impeachment proceedings,” said Jane Boever. “And if they let us down, then it’s up to South Dakota voters to get him out of the ballot box.”