South Dakota AG Jason Ravensborg fined, no jail time in pedestrian death

South Dakota AG Jason Ravensborg fined, no jail time in pedestrian death

FORT PIERRE, SD – South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravensborg pleaded no contest Thursday for a pair of misdemeanor traffic charges over a crash last year that killed a pedestrian, prompting bitter complaints from the victim’s family. He avoided jail time despite that he was being punished very lightly. He called the actions “unforgivable”.

Circuit Judge John Brown had little leeway to order jail time. Instead, he fined the state’s top law enforcement officer $500 for each count plus $3,742 in court costs. Brown ordered Republicans to perform “an important public service event” each of the next five years closer to the date of Joseph Bower’s death—providing requests from the Bower family. But after Ravensborg’s lawyer objected that it was not allowed by law, they put him on hold pending a final decision.

Ravensborg said in a statement after the hearing that he plans to remain in office. The petition narrowed down the criminal portion of the case, leading the government to call on Christie Noem – a fellow Republican – and law enforcement groups across the state to call for her resignation. But he still faces potential trial and a possible impeachment attempt on the part of Bower’s widow.

Ravensborg’s statement accused “partisan opportunists” of taking advantage of the situation and said that they “created rumours, conspiracy theories and made statements in direct contradiction to the evidence agreed upon by all parties.”

Noem later pushed the legislature to consider impeachment in a statement, saying he ordered the Speaker of the House a copy of the investigation file. The impeachment proceedings were halted in February after the judge barred state officials from divulging the details of the investigation. Lawmakers had then indicated that they could resume after the criminal case ended.

The Attorney General was on his way home from a political fundraiser to Pierre on 12 September when he struck Bower, who was walking along a highway. In a 911 call after the accident, Ravensborg was initially unsure about what struck him and then told a dispatcher that it might have been a deer. He said he didn’t realize he killed a man until he returned to the crash site the next day and discovered the body of 55-year-old Bower.

Ravensborg pleaded no contest to making illegal lane changes and using the phone while driving, which each faced a maximum jail term of 30 days and a fine of $500. Prosecutors dropped the reckless driving charge.

Ravensborg did not attend the hearing – he was not required to do so and was represented by his lawyer, Tim Rensch. This angered Bower’s family.

“Why, after waiting almost a year, haven’t we had a chance to face him?” Bower’s sister Jane Bower asked the court. She said “his cowardly behavior frustrates us.”

She said that the night she died, her brother was “carelessly left behind”. He accused Ravensborg of using his position and resources to take down his brother and then advance the case. She said she had shown no remorse, and only “arrogance to the law”.

Jane Bower called the punishment “a slap on the wrist”.

“Our brother lay in the ditch for 12 hours,” she said. “It’s unforgivable.”

Bower’s widow, Jennifer Bower, said that Ravensborg’s “actions are incomprehensible and … cannot be forgiven.”

Rensch lashed out at the family’s criticism, calling the attorney general an “honorable person.” Rensch said that Ravsenborg was consistent from the start that he did not see Bower. And he noted that the case was “not a murder case, and it is not a murder case.”

“Accidents happen, people die. It should not happen. Nobody wants anyone to die,” he said.

Rensch told reporters after the hearing that Ravensborg sat down for two interviews and fully cooperated with investigators and allowed his phone to be analyzed.

“Basically just take off your shirt and say, ‘Here I am, get it.’ Whatever you have, I’ll answer that, and that’s what this guy did,” Rensch said.

One of the prosecutors, Beadle County State Attorney Michael Moore, agreed that the attorney general had been an ally. He was also satisfied with Ravensborg’s conviction and the investigation into the accident.

“Due to who it was and the high profile nature of the case, the investigation was much more thorough,” he said.

After a month-long investigation that prosecutors charged Ravensborg with three misdemeanors in February, Noam exerted maximum pressure on Ravensborg to resign, releasing videos of investigators interrogating him. They uncovered gruesome details that led detectives to believe that Bower’s body had hit Ravensborg’s windshield with such force that a portion of his glasses had accumulated in the back seat of Ravensborg’s car.

Prosecutors said Ravensborg was on his phone about a minute before the crash, but phone records showed it was off at the time of the impact. Ravensborg told investigators that the last thing they remembered before the impact was to turn off the radio and look down at the speedometer.

A toxicology test conducted about 15 hours after the accident showed no alcohol in Ravensborg’s system, and those who attended the fundraiser said they had not been seen drinking.

Ravensborg categorically denied doing anything wrong. He insisted he had no idea that he killed a man until he returned to the crash site and that he deserves to be the state’s top law enforcement officer.

“Joe’s death weighs heavily on me and always will be,” Ravensborg said in her statement. “I’ve often wondered why the accident happened and everything that had to happen to connect our lives together.”

Ravensborg’s insistence on staying in office has opened up a divide among Republicans, with whom she maintains support among some GOP circles. The attorney general has been seen in recent weeks at county fairs in booths working for local Republican groups.

But popular predecessor Marty Jackley is already running for his old job and has garnered the support of most of the state’s county prosecutors. Political parties will choose candidates for attorney general at statewide conventions next year.

Ravensborg built his political rise on personal ties in the party. It was his dutiful appearances at local GOP events, such as the one he was returning from when Bower was killed, that propelled him from being a party outsider to winning the Republican nomination for attorney general in 2018.

Bower’s family said they expected Ravensborg to be fired from office at some point.

“It’s not too late for the state legislature to resume impeachment proceedings,” said Jane Bower. “And if they fail us, South Dakota voters are left to remove them from the ballot box.”