The lawyer for Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg says his client has been unfairly judged and treated as a result of Gov. Kristi Noem and the public’s desire for transparency in the investigation and criminal case.
“He’s been treated worse in all of this than anybody else would have been, just by virtue of his position,” Rapid City lawyer Tim Rensch said this week. “What in the world is going on here? Why is this person being treated unfairly and being treated differently than anybody else?”
“There is a process in place that secures people’s rights, and that most basic right is presumed innocence,” he said.
But Noem “said she wants him removed and wants to release information, selective information before he’s been able to go through the fair process,” Rensch said. “I shake my head at the idea that someone can just decide on their own because they’re in a high political office” that they will ignore legal safeguards.
The Journal asked Noem on Thursday why she has not released a full investigative report so people could view all evidence in context, and why she waited until Feb. 22 to review and share more evidence after releasing some months ago.
“When that was a closed investigative case and charges were brought forward, (that) was the time to be more transparent with the public,” she said.
Rensch said the unprecedented release of evidence is a danger to all South Dakotans.
“When you take the rights away from the people you don’t like, you take the rights away from everybody,” he said. If the attorney general can’t receive due process, “then the lowest person in society can’t get it.”
Ravnsborg was charged Feb. 18 with unsafely driving outside a lane and careless driving in relation to hitting and killing pedestrian Joe Boever with his car on Sept. 12 near Highmore. He's also charged with using his phone while driving before the crash.
All three charges are Class 2 misdemeanors, each punishable by up to 30 days in jail and/or up to a $500 fine.
Noem and the Department of Public Safety began promising transparency in the case at a Sept. 15 news conference.
“We are adding an extra level of transparency and accountability that I think is necessary in this case,” Noem said. DPS will “release the investigative report as soon as it is complete,” said Secretary Craig Price.
While Noem and DPS never followed through and released a full report, they did take unprecedented steps in releasing evidence that is usually not made available unless it's presented in court.
DPS released Ravnsborg’s 911 call and toxicology reports in October and the crash report and a photograph of Ravnsborg’s damaged car the next month. The crash report is a public record while the 911 call is sometimes a public record. However, the toxicology reports and photo are usually not available through a public records request.
DPS, on the orders of Noem, released the most serious evidence on Feb. 23: Videos of Ravnsborg’s two interviews with investigators that revealed new allegations about the crash.
Investigators said Ravnsborg should have seen Boever before, during and after the crash if he was paying any attention. They said Boever was walking with a flashlight, crashed head-first through Ravnsborg’s windshield, left behind broken glasses in the car, and then came to rest near the side of the road next to the flashlight that remained illuminated.
Noem announced on the morning of Feb. 25 that she would release more evidence but her plans changed by the afternoon when a judge signed a gag order in response to Rensch filing a motion requesting the order, which he says protects Ravnsborg's due process rights.
Noem released the videos over the objections of the prosecutor and before he got to watch them, Rensch said in his motion.
“My office did receive that email and we disagreed with” the prosecutor’s legal arguments as to why we shouldn’t release the evidence, Noem said Thursday, adding that her office has no regrets about sharing the videos.
The videos and other evidence were also released before a judge decided whether they would be admitted into court, Rensch told the Journal.
The sporadic release of evidence means “people see pieces and parts of the evidence and they start to draw their own conclusions,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that all this stuff came out in the fashion that it did.”
“The public doesn’t get to decide,” Ravnsborg’s guilt or innocence, a 12-person jury must determine that “beyond a reasonable doubt,” Rensch said. Pre-trial media coverage in high-profile cases makes it “extremely hard” to find jurors who haven’t already made up their mind, and this case has not just media coverage but raw evidence that potential jurors might have seen.
Rensch said he’s upset with Noem, three law enforcement organizations and legislators — who delayed an impeachment effort after the gag order — who called on Ravnsborg to resign.
Noem declined to comment on whether a House committee erred in delaying impeachment due to the criminal case, which she called “completely different” processes. She said the best way for the state and Boever’s family to heal would be for Ravnsborg to resign.
Rensch is also upset about claims that his client is engaged in a cover-up or receiving special treatment.
“The only special treatment he’s getting is he’s being injured in his due process rights,” he said.
Someone involved in a cover-up doesn’t report the crash and Boever’s body to law enforcement, waive their right to remain silent by twice speaking with police, and consent to being drug tested and having their phones searched, he added.
“You can’t change his rights just because of that,” Rensch said about arguments that there should be more transparency in the case due to Ravnsborg’s position. He said it would have been more fair to release evidence once the criminal case was over.
Ravnsborg is scheduled to make his first court appearance at 4 p.m. next Friday at the Hughes County Court in Pierre.
— Contact Arielle Zionts at firstname.lastname@example.org.