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Prosecutor Disputes Claim That Evidence Supported Manslaughter Charge Against Ravnsborg

Yeah, sorry—it may be all Jason all day….

Yesterday, Secretary of Public Safety Craig Price said the evidence in the case of Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg’s fatal car crash on September 12, 2020, supported a charge of second-degree manslaughter for the death of Joseph Boever.

Beadle County State’s Attorney Michael Moore, who assisted Hyde County Deputy State’s Attorney Emily Sovell with prosecuting Ravnsborg for that crash, says the evidence did not support a manslaughter charge and says those who say otherwise are just “politicians” politicizing the case:

“I would say to the politicians out there that are making this very political, they have a remedy. But to point their fingers at the criminal justice system or at the prosecutors I think is wrong,” he said.

The state has no negligent homicide law, Moore noted. He said there wasn’t proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Ravnsborg’s actions met the legal definition of “reckless” behavior, which is needed to charge someone with second-degree manslaughter [Arielle Zionts, “Ravnsborg Prosecutor: Politicians Should Blame State Laws, Not Prosecution,” SDPB, 2021.09.01].

Evidently it’s our fault that Moore and Sovell only brought misdemeanor charges unrelated to Boever’s death:

“They should only be pointing fingers at themselves,” Moore said. “If the governor wanted that to be a law, let’s see it. Propose it in the next legislative session. If the legislators want it to be a law, propose it in the next legislative session. But quit criticizing the criminal justice system because we’re bound by what you tell us to do and we followed the law in this case” [Zionts, 2021.09.01].

In his stunning missive yesterday, Secretary Price said the evidence of manslaughter was strong enough that South Dakota Highway Patrol officers, who are not politicians in the sense Moore pejorativizes the word, “stood ready and willing to provide expert testimony regarding the crash and the facts of this investigation at trial.” Secretary Price criticized suggested that the Attorney General’s “assertions” to the contrary about the facts of the case “disparaged the work and reputation of the law enforcement agencies involved in this investigation.” Is State’s Attorney Moore now joining the prominent (and, it seems, habitual) offender he prosecuted in disparaging the work and reputation of the law enforcement officers who investigated Ravnsborg and found evidence that he committed a serious crime that prosecutors choose not to charge?


  1. bearcreekbat 2021-09-02 11:33

    I was really hoping to read an explanation of exactly why the prosecutors determined Ravnsburg’s conduct couldn’t support a reckless driving indictment and a jury conviction, since that was the prosecutor’s original excuse for not bringing a manslaughter charge. Manslaughter requires proof of reckless conduct, and the prosecutor asserted, without explanation then or now, that killing a man while violating relevant traffic laws, such as staying in the proper lane, couldn’t support a reckless driving charge. Instead of a factual explanation for such a strange and unusual conclusion, however, all I read in this story is some whining by Moore attacking folks who naturally questioned the decision.

  2. Kurt Evans 2021-09-02 12:46

    Sovell said publicly in February that a manslaughter charge would have required the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Ravnsborg “consciously” disregarded the risk of killing a pedestrian.

    The evidence that’s currently available suggests Ravnsborg wasn’t fully conscious.

  3. Jim Milroy 2021-09-02 12:56’s not the sec-of whatever you call it-to decide on charges. That’s up to ..oh oh! It’s the kettle actually boiling itself in itself. Really..the best thing you can say about all this is “at least there was a trial”.

  4. DaveFN 2021-09-02 12:59

    I might say the available evidence is sufficient that Ravnsborg consciously disregarded the road and thereby caused the death of Boever.

  5. bearcreekbat 2021-09-02 13:42

    Kurt points out a past explanation for the charging decision by the prosecutor, but doesn’t get it quite right. Kurt writes that Stovell said “a manslaughter charge would have required the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Ravnsborg ‘consciously’ disregarded the risk of killing a pedestrian.” According to public reports, however, Stovell apparently did not include the phrase “risk of killing a pedestrian,” rather she is reported to have said

    Sovell said the evidence didn’t support more serious felony charges such as vehicular homicide or manslaughter. . . . She also said that to prove manslaughter, the state would have had to show that Ravnsborg “consciously and unjustifiably” disregarded a substantial risk.

    Without the killing reference, Stovell’s statement is a correct, albeit incomplete, statement of the law. The rule requiring proof that a defendant “’consciously’” disregarded the risk” was explained in detail in Janklow’s manslaughter appeal. According to that decision

    The difference between the terms “recklessly” and “negligently,” as usually defined, is one of kind, rather than degree. Each actor creates a risk of harm. The reckless actor is aware of the risk and disregards it; the negligent actor is not aware of the risk but should have been aware of it.

    So Sovell apparently asserted that some unidentified evidence indicated that Ravnsburg was not “aware” that driving at highway speed while distracted and especially driving outside of his lane of travel created a substantial risk of harm to person or property. Janklow argued that it was his medical condition that made him unaware of the risk, but the jury rejected that explanation and the Supreme Court was not inclined to second guess the jury. I saw no similar reports that Ravnsburg claimed “not to be aware” that his distracted driving outside his lane created a substantial risk of harm to person or property. Rather, as best I could tell he asserted he didn’t commit either offense. Indeed, he refused to admit the offenses in his plea bargain, submitting “no contest” pleas instead. If a jury rejected Ravnsburg’s denials as incredible, then it could also reasonably infer that Ravnsburg was aware of creating a substantial risk of harm.

    My question remains: what was this unidentified evidence that convinced Sovell that Ravnsburg was “not aware” that his actions created a substantial risk of harm? My critiicism of Moore’s public statement attacking folks who also question Stovell’s charging decision stands.

  6. Anne 2021-09-02 14:52

    I am not a lawyer nor do I live in South Dakota, except to return periodically to help with digitizing some legal records. I worked in court administration, and listened to and read many arguments over state law. When I heard the arguments that the evidence against Ravnsborg did not meet the standard for felony charges beyond reasonable doubt, a number those instances came to mind, I immediately thought of one article that came up in the Janklow case:

    22-18-36. Vehicular battery.
    Any person who, while under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or substances in a manner and to a degree prohibited by § 32-23-1, without design to effect serious bodily injury, operates or drives a motor vehicle of any kind in a negligent manner and thereby causes the serious bodily injury of another person, including an unborn child, is guilty of vehicular battery. Vehicular battery is a Class 4 felony. In addition to any other penalty prescribed by law, the court shall order that the driver’s license of any person convicted of vehicular battery be revoked for a period of not less than three years from the date sentence is imposed or three years from the date of initial release from imprisonment, whichever is later. In the event the person is returned to imprisonment prior to the completion of the period of driver’s license revocation, time spent imprisoned does not count toward fulfilling the period of revocation.

    The applicable phrase is “or drives a motor vehicle of any kind in a negligent manner and thereby causes the serious bodily injury of another person, including an unborn child, is guilty of vehicular battery.”

    While the prosecutors may think that felony charges aew beyond their abilities, lawyers instituting a suit for wrongful death will find South Dakota law very accommodating.

  7. Anne 2021-09-02 14:58

    I hit the post button before correcting a couple of obvious typos. Please mentally correct.

  8. John 2021-09-02 15:33

    Sovell and Moore BLEW it. DPS Sec Price, bearbatcreek, Anne, and the rest of the civilized world knows the prosecution BLEW it. Moore’s rationale of, ‘because I said so’ is flimsier than the Nuremberg defense.

    Let’s trust the Hughes County prosecutor will not blow it and throw the book at Ravnsborg.

  9. Donald Pay 2021-09-02 15:37

    I’m not a lawyer, either. I, however, do drive, and I dream. Like all of you, I have driven unsafely while being distracted. For me it was by turning the radio dial. As a teenager, I was doing this, missed seeing a yield sign, and crunched another car. No injuries, but I got a ticket, was grounded and had to pay a few bucks to my parents to cover the deductible. Lesson learned. Occasionally I dream about that accident, except it was a little girl who I hit. The girl in the dream looks like my daughter.

  10. mike from iowa 2021-09-02 15:53

    So Sovell took Ravnsborg’s lunch money in law school and decided she owed him one here?

  11. Mark Anderson 2021-09-02 16:51

    Well gosh all you South Dakotans, now you can run over those you don’t like. Moore to you.

  12. bearcreekbat 2021-09-02 18:08

    In another case where a teenager failed to yield the right of way as he turned a tractor across the road on to a field the SD Supreme Court upheld the summary dismissal of a manslaughter charge, explaining:

    The State has failed to offer evidence indicating that Olsen’s failure to yield the right-of-way was done in such a manner as to suggest a reckless disregard for the safety of others. While the State need not introduce evidence that Olsen could foresee a death resulting from his conduct, the State must introduce evidence that would allow a trier of fact to conclude that Olsen was aware of the dangerous nature of his conduct.

    Given this precedent it is entirely possible that involuntary manslaughter charges against Ravnsborg would have been dismissed by a magistrate, trial court or even the SD Supreme Court. It is also entirely possible that Ravnsborg would have been tried and convicted for manslaughter.

    One would expect any reasonable prosecutor to allow the court to make such a decision in a case where a man was killed. Indeed, the only reason we have laws against distracted driving is to avoid harming others. It is one thing to negligently attempt to do a lawful act, such as Olsen turning his tractor on to a field. It is entirely another thing to drive at highway speed on the shoulder of the road without some exceptional reason to do so, or to intentionally violate a law that the driver is fuilly aware of such as looking at web sites on a cell phone rather than watching the road.

    And making an otherwise lawful turn like Olsen did is not an inherently dangerous act, unless done in a negligent manner. But both taking one’s eyes off the road to look at internet sites on a cell while driving at highway speed and unjustified driving outside one’s lane are inherently dangerous acts.

    Try as I might, I cannot find a reasonable basis for the actions of Sovell and Moore in refusing to bring manslaughter charges against Ravnsborg.

  13. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2021-09-02 18:15

    Thanks for that case law, Bear. To establish that Brownsburg was aware of the dangerous nature of his conduct, driving while phoning and driving on the shoulder of the road, I take it we don’t have to get evidence of his state of mind at the moment of the act. Would it be correct we would simply need to establish that he demonstrated awareness of the dangerousness of those activities at some point prior to the accident? Like if he gave a public speech in 2019 talking about the dangers of distracted driving, would that establish that he knew that what he was doing on September 12 was dangerous?

  14. bearcreekbat 2021-09-02 21:02

    Cory, there is seldom direct evidence of a defendant’s state of mind, and here I don’t think the prosecution would have had to provide direct evidence of Ravnsborg’s awareness. It seems enough that absent some extraordinary circumstance using a cell phone or driving outside the lane are necesarily substantially dangerous acts that create the requisite risk for recklessness. The same holds true for running a stop sign, which is probably why Janklow tried to use his medical condition as evidence that he didn’t appreciate the otherwise obvious risk.

    That said, Ravnsborg’s prior speech seems hioghly relevant to his state of mind and surely could be introduced as direct evidence that Ravnsborg knew that distracted driving created the requisite risk.

    Typically a jury must infer as a fact the defendant’s state of mind and can make such an inference over a defendant’s vehement denials. indeed, I have seen appellate opinions where the reviewing court ruled that a defendant’s denial, if found incredible, was alone sufficent evidence to support a jury inference of the opposite of defendant’s claim!

  15. DaveFN 2021-09-03 08:51

    “conscious disregard of the road while driving thereupon” = [de facto] “reckless”

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