Judge-turned-lawmaker takes on South Dakota’s death penalty
PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — A judge-turned-lawmaker urged colleagues in the South Dakota Senate Tuesday to abolish the state’s death penalty for almost all crimes, recalling that one of the most difficult actions he took during his career on the bench was sentencing a man to die.
Republican Arthur Rusch presented his case for a bill that would allow the death penalty only for people convicted of killing a law enforcement officer or firefighter.
The South Dakota Catholic Conference and some conservative lawmakers are supporting the bill, but their fellow Republicans, prosecutors and a murder victim’s family are actively opposing it.
The debate before a Senate committee rifled through the state’s history of grisly murders and executions. There was Jack McCall, who shot Wild Bill Hickock in the back of the head; Chief Two Sticks, who was executed in 1894 for instigating the killing of four men; and Charles Russell Rhines, who was put to death in 2019, the most recent prisoner in the state to be executed.
Ed Schaeffer, whose son Donnivan was murdered by Rhines in 1992, testified against the bill, telling lawmakers it took “over 27 years to have Charles Rhines put down.”
But it was the 1997 death sentence of Donald Moeller that Rusch said he had “a very close and personal relationship with” and left him wanting to abolish the death penalty. Moeller was executed in 2012 for raping and murdering 9-year-old Becky O’Connell.
When Rusch sentenced Moeller to death in a retrial of the case, he called the crime “horrendous” but said he had hoped he would never have to issue such an order. In previous years, he has brought proposals to exempt people with mental illness from being executed, but those have failed to gain traction in the Republican-dominated Legislature.
Rusch said that presiding over Moeller’s case convinced him that the death penalty is not a deterrent to murders and that the cost, both financially to the state and psychologically to jurors, could not be justified.
“Death is different,” he said. “Anybody who has been involved with a death penalty case will tell you that.”
But South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, whose office warded off legal challenges by Rhines to win a stay of execution two years ago, argued against the bill. He invoked the names of victims from the state’s most violent crimes, saying that most would not have seen their perpetrators put to death under Rusch’s proposal.
He also cast the bill as a step toward allowing the most violent criminals to one day be released from prison.
“I don’t think that’s what society’s looking for, to have these people walk out,” he said.
A Senate committee of seven Republicans will decide Thursday whether the bill will get a vote in the full chamber, but it has already revealed a range of positions on the issue among conservatives.
To prove his Republican loyalties, Ron Keine, who works with a group opposed to the death penalty called Witness to Innocence, flashed a Donald Trump ring on his finger as he testified on a video call.
“A lot of people say it’s a liberal movement, but in many states Republicans have supported it,” he told lawmakers.
The South Dakota Catholic Conference, an influential lobbying group, argued that opposition to the death penalty is to be “strong on the dignity of life.”
Ravnsborg countered, saying that his “pro-life” positions have prompted him to seek out the maximum punishment for people who take life by committing murder.
For Rusch, his argument centered on the toll that the death penalty takes a toll on everyone else, from costly extended trials to furthering violence in culture. He still knows what it took from him over 20 years after presiding over a capital trial.
“It took a year out of my life,” he said.