Law and order? Nah—Representative Tom Pischke wants killers to do less time.
House Bill 1185 would knock first-degree manslaughter down from a Class C felony to a Class 2 felony. Per SDCL 22-6-1, Class C can put a killer in prison for life; Class 2 caps sentences at 25 years. The maximum fine for each level is $50K.
SDCL 22-16-15 defines first-degree manslaughter as any killing committed “without any design to effect death” under any of these three conditions:
- while committing any felony other than “arson, rape, robbery, burglary, kidnapping, or unlawful throwing, placing, or discharging of a destructive device or explosive” (SDCL 22-16-4 makes killings associated with those crimes first-degree murder);
- acting “in a heat of passion, but in a cruel and unusual manner”;
- using a dangerous weapon.
Under a fourth criterion, first-degree manslaughter can also snare folks who unnecessarily use deadly force to fight off someone trying to commit a crime (e.g., shooting an unarmed trespasser) or to kill that aspiring criminal after the attempted crime has failed (e.g., shooting an armed trespasser after he falls off your fence, loses his gun, and starts running away).
Representative Pischke is not trying to get distracted driver and unqualified Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg a lighter sentence for the manslaughter Ravnsborg committed on September 12, 2020, when he rammed his car into pedestrian Joe Boever on the shoulder of Highway 14 west of Highmore. Unless we learn that Ravnsborg was texting his dope dealer or snorting coke instead of watching the road, Ravnsborg would face charges of second-degree manslaughter, a Class 4 felony that could put him in the pen for ten years and take $20K out of his sorry hide.
So whom is Rep. Pischke trying to help? Surely he doesn’t want the justice system to go easy on felons whose felonious behavior leads to the deaths of innocents. That wouldn’t square with our pro-life principles. And surely Pischke wouldn’t want to help quasi-accidental killers who act cruelly and unusually.
Maybe House Bill 1185 is a subtle sop to the gun lobby, trying to reduce the penalty gun nuts may face under the third criterion of first-degree manslaughter for recklessly discharging their bang-bangs. Or maybe Pischke has his eye on criterion 4 and its ability to lengthily imprison gun owners exaggeratedly interpreting the castle and stand-your-ground doctrines as an excuse for live target practice.
We’ll have to wait for Representative Pischke to bring this bill to committee to find out what motivates House Bill 1185. But I’m having trouble thinking of any reason that the dangerous folks covered by our first-degree manslaughter statute need lesser penalties.