Pennington County States Attorney Mark Vargo, left, along with Willie Whelchel of Pennington County Sheriff's Office and James Johns of the Rapid City Police Department answer questions about the death and murder investigation of Jessica Rehfeld in 2016.

Journal file

Pennington County Commissioner Ron Buskerud crossed a line when he said we should consider returning to our Wild West ways when justice was swift and final.

He later apologized for his role in the sophomoric banter with Commissioner Mark DiSanto, who said at the Aug. 2 budget hearing that “it would resolve a lot of problems if our criminals would just settle their differences by playing roshambo,” a reference to a crude game where men kick each other in the private parts until only one is left standing.

In response, Buskerud said: “Or if the Supreme Court would allow us to have a trial and take ‘em out behind and shoot ‘em, like we used to do in the Wild West. That would solve a lot of problems.”

Later, in a Journal article, Buskerud called his remarks “totally inappropriate,” “stupid” and he “absolutely” regretted them.

But what was lost in the locker room talk is a serious issue — the extraordinary cost of prosecuting death-penalty cases. When State's Attorney Mark Vargo said he would seek the death penalty for two men charged with killing Jessica Rehfeld, he set in motion a process that could lead to an increase in property taxes.

The Pennington County Public Defender’s Office is seeking an additional $200,000 in 2018 to defend Jonathon Klinetobe, considered the mastermind of a truly heinous crime. More funds could be needed in the future since it costs between $250,000 and $750,000 to defend death-penalty cases, according to the public defender’s office. Its total budget request is $2.7 million for 2018.

The state’s attorney’s office, meanwhile, wants an additional $57,000 for witness expenses in 2018, including those for the death-penalty trials. The 7th Circuit Court cited the death-penalty cases when making its request for an increase of $530,000, which includes funds to hire court-appointed lawyers for both defendants, for a nearly $2 million budget in 2018. In death-penalty cases, defendants typically have two lawyers; Klintobe will have three lawyers, all at public expense.

The death penalty has the overwhelming support of the Legislature, which reflects how many South Dakotans feel about the ultimate punishment. For those who support it, the stabbing death of 22-year-old Jessica Rehfeld in a car meets the criteria for the death penalty.

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But while Vargo and his office shoulders the burden of prosecuting the cases, it's residents who have seen property taxes climb significantly in the past two years that will shoulder the burden of the costs.

In fact, it has become so expensive to prosecute these cases it is unlikely any of South Dakota's rural counties could foot the bill. For example, Bennett County has a budget of only $1.3 million to cover all its expenses.

It is time for state lawmakers and officials to create a fund to help counties pay for the prosecution, court costs and when needed the defense of those facing the death penalty.

Otherwise, state's attorneys who also are elected officials will have to consider the bottom line when making life-and-death decisions, which means it could no longer be a matter of if the punishment fits the crime, but if the county can afford what it considers the appropriate punishment.

If the majority of South Dakotans support executions, they should have no trouble contributing to the prosecution of all future death-penalty cases.

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