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Arthur Rusch

Sen. Arthur Rusch, R-Vermillion.

For the third year in a row, state legislators last week defeated a measure that would have repealed the death penalty in South Dakota.

The Senate State Affairs committee voted 7-2 against the bill, whose main sponsor was Sen. Arthur Rusch, R-Vermillion, a retired circuit judge.

Rusch, who has prosecuted a death penalty case, told the committee he has seen the death penalty's damaging effects firsthand. He said capital punishment financially overburdens counties, traumatizes both judges and jurors, and is not an effective deterrent on crime.

In his 12 years as a state's attorney who handled 20,000 criminal cases, Rusch said he saw that “the only thing about punishment that is an effective deterrence is that the punishment is quick and certain." He said South Dakota's death penalty is certainly not quick nor certain.

The last three individuals to be executed in South Dakota, the lawmaker said, were those who essentially consented to it by abandoning their avenues for appeal. Meanwhile, one death row inmate, Charles Rhines, has been appealing his sentence since it was handed down 23 years ago.

Rusch said that besides being a costly government program, capital punishment can also lead to mistakes that cannot be rectified, which includes the killing of innocent people.

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“It really affects and offends the true conservative principles of respect for life, of fiscal responsibility and limited government,” he said. The death row inmate in whose case Rusch presided, Donald Moeller, was executed in 2012 for the crime of murder.

The opponents at the hearing included the widow of Ronald Johnson, a state correctional officer who was killed by two inmates during an escape attempt in 2011. One of the inmates, Eric Robert, was executed in 2012. His accomplice, Rodney Berget, has been on death row for four years.

The defeated bill, Senate Bill 94, was introduced with 24 bi-partisan co-sponsors.

In the previous legislative session, a measure repealing the death penalty was also defeated in the Senate State Affairs committee. In 2014, a similar bill suffered the same fate at the House committee level.

The Associated Press contributed to this story. 

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Cops and Courts Reporter

Cops and courts reporter for the Rapid City Journal from February 2016 to July 2018. Contact her on Facebook or Twitter @tiffgtan.