The state withdrew Monday its intent to seek the death penalty in the Jessica Rehfeld murder case following a request from the victim’s family.
Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo announced the withdrawal at a hearing for defendant Jonathon Klinetobe, 12 months after Vargo said the state would ask for capital punishment in the Rapid City woman's fatal stabbing.
“We are withdrawing our intent to seek the death penalty as it relates to Mr. Klinetobe,” Vargo told 7th Circuit Judge Heidi Linngren at the county courthouse Monday morning.
Klinetobe, 28, of Sturgis, is accused of hiring two Rapid City men to kill his ex-girlfriend Rehfeld in May 2015. The 22-year-old woman was considered a missing person until police said an informant led them to her makeshift grave near Rockerville in May 2016.
Klinetobe and Richard Hirth, the alleged killer, are facing charges of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy. Their most serious charge, first-degree murder, carries a maximum sentence of life in prison when death is off the table. They pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.
Another defendant, David Schneider, 26, pleaded guilty in January 2017 to first-degree murder. He is in county jail, waiting to receive a life sentence under the terms of a deal with prosecutors.
The victim’s father, Michael Rehfeld, told Judge Linngren that the prosecution’s reversal on the death penalty issue was done at his family’s request.
Michael explained that getting the death penalty, if convicted, would keep the men in the news for decades as their appeals wound through the legal system. He didn’t want “the guilty to become famous” while his daughter’s killing would become almost a footnote in the process.
The Rehfelds also wanted to soon reclaim Jessica’s necklace and cellphone, which contain the last photos of her alive. Both items are being held as police evidence and would remain so while appeals are being heard, and which Michael said would make it harder for the family to move on.
Michael said he originally “fully supported” the state’s decision to seek the death penalty against Klinetobe and Hirth after being “consumed with anger” toward anyone involved in his daughter's death.
But with the passage of time, as well as research on capital punishment, Michael said he started to question the decision and eventually asked the state to reconsider its position. “And they have agreed to respect my decision,” he said as several family members sat listening in the gallery’s first row.
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Linngren said the news likely “comes as a shock” to the majority of people in the courtroom, particularly members of the media. But the judge reminded everyone involved in the case that the gag order she issued in June 2016 remained in place as the police investigation continued.
Hirth, 37, is scheduled to return to court this afternoon, where the state is expected to also withdraw the death penalty notice in his case.
These developments are expected to help bring down Pennington County's expenses short term, but the details aren't immediately clear, said county commission Chairman Lloyd LaCroix.
“I’m sure it’s gonna reduce the budget, but I can’t say how much,” LaCroix said in a phone interview Monday afternoon.
The state’s intention to seek the death penalty against Klinetobe and Hirth led to large increases in this year’s funding for the county courthouse and public defender’s office. The director of the public defender's office earlier said taxpayers can "reasonably expect" to shoulder $500,000 to $1 million for the prosecution and defense of a capital case, which include the cost of expert evaluations and witness fees.
County departments have already started putting together their budget proposals for 2019, and LaCroix said he needs to speak with Vargo to understand what major expenses are still expected in Klinetobe’s and Hirth’s cases even if the costs associated with the death penalty are now out.
Meanwhile, the two men are waiting for Linngren’s decision on separate requests to throw out certain evidence collected by police. They are detained also at the county jail.
Pennington County’s last death penalty case, according to the county courthouse, was that of Charles Rhines. He was convicted in 1993 of first-degree murder and sentenced to death for fatally stabbing 22-year-old Donnivan Schaeffer during a Rapid City burglary in 1992.
Rhines, 61, is detained at the state penitentiary in Sioux Falls while his appeals continue. He is on death row in South Dakota along with two other inmates.
As of Dec. 29, according to state Department of Corrections data, 191 people were serving life sentences in South Dakota prison.