So far today, the most-read story on the Argus Leader website is this one, about an attempt to limit Sioux City’s ability to collect fines from South Dakota residents accused of speeding through the border city.
Some South Dakotans feel they’ve been targeted, and they’ve felt that way for a long time.
One reader had called me to talk about the cameras in October. He said he was pretty sure that the majority of the people caught speeding by Sioux City’s Interstate 29 cameras are from South Dakota.
It’s not an outlandish assumption. The speed limit is lower in Iowa. People in Iowa are accustomed to driving at Iowa speeds. South Dakotans are accustomed to driving at South Dakota speeds.
Unfortunately, I learned, there’s not a simple way to find out how many of the people who get the tickets are from South Dakota. Or Iowa. Or from anywhere else for that matter.
Shortly after my conversation with the driver in October, I sent the SCPD a public records request asking for a full list of all those cited by an automated camera, including their names and addresses and the location of the violations.
Shortly thereafter, I got a response from Lt. Mark Kirkpatrick.
He couldn’t really tell me what I wanted to know, and here’s why: First off, the department doesn’t track and compile the states to which the citations are sent. The city’s provider, Redflex traffic systems, maintains the addresses and violations.
The tickets are civil in nature, Kirkpatrick said, meaning they’d need to redact personally identifying information from each citation. Doing that would require officers to print out and scrub individual records, which the Lieutenant said they could do at a rate of 100 tickets per day.
With 39,000 tickets in 2012 alone, he wrote, we’d be looking at 3,000 hours of research at $40 an hour.
“As you can see the request, as made, is probably not a feasible option,” he wrote in October.
I called Kirkpatrick back today to see if there might be an easier way to find out where the money was coming from. Considering that an aide to Governor Daugaard accused Sioux City of targeting South Dakotans (a term the aide later said he wished he hadn’t used), it seems like a number relevant to the debate about data-sharing between state that’s been ignited by House Bill 1122.
There might be a way to get some raw number, I’m told, perhaps by looking at billing information. We’ll see what happens.
I got a curious email this morning about my cat.
Well, not exactly about my cat, but my cat was kind of responsible.
You see, I’ve taken Cassie to Dale Animal Hospital a few times since picking her up from the shelter two years ago, which means I sometimes get informational emails from the vet.
Today, I got one with a subject line “Marijuana Toxicity In Pets.”
I assume - or at least I hope - that they sent this to everyone on their email list.
Anyway, the email contained a link to this blog post, which is, predictably enough, about the effect of marijuana on critters.
The idea here is that decriminalization and legalization for medical purposes has de-stigmatized and expanded marijuana use. As that happens, pet owners should know what effect the drug can have on their furry friends and guard their stash accordingly.
Here’s the gist: It’s a bad idea to give your pets pot. They’re smaller than you, their reactions are more intense, and there’s nothing to show that pot has any medicinal value for Pookie the poodle.
This might seem kind of silly on first blush, but there were some interesting stats in the post to explain why this matters:
“The Pet Poison Hotline has reported a 200% increase, over a five year period, in calls asking about marijuana and pets. California and Colorado both passed legislation to legalize medical marijuana usage. At the University of California, Davis, Veterinary Medicine Teaching Hospital there were four cases of marijuana toxicity in 2010, but there were 27 cases in 2013. Two Colorado veterinary hospitals reported a four-fold increase over the last six years, and this was before marijuana became legal. All but two of these cases lived; two dogs who ate cannabis butter died. In a 2002 study of 250 cases, 96% of cases occurred in dogs (dogs will eat anything!). In this group there were two fatal cases, one was a cat, and the other a horse.”
Treating pot poisoning isn’t necessarily simple, either. If an animal swallows too much marijuana, they’ll need to swallow activated charcoal every eight hours or so for the first day or two, for example.
This might matter more for pet owners in states where voters have moved to expand access to marijuana than it will for South Dakotans, but it’s timely either way.
That the email went out at all, that veterinarians are thinking about this, is more proof of the far-reaching effects of legalization. Regardless of how anyone feels about pot, there’s no denying that decriminalization will force policymakers, bureaucrats, doctors, school officials, insurance adjusters, bankers, employers and plain, old regular folks to think about things they hadn’t before.
Should failing a drug test for using a legal drug disqualify a person from employment? Should banks loan money to pot shop owners? Growers?
I was just speaking with Attorney General Marty Jackley about a handful of topics yesterday and marijuana came up in that context. Law enforcement officials in states surrounding Colorado, including Jackley, are in “wait and see” mode in terms of the impact that state’s legalization of marijuana will have on trafficking, availability and use in their own backyards.
Colorado and Washington have talked a lot about drugged driving, in hopes of finding a reasonable way to identify and hold accountable stoned drivers.
I must admit, I hadn’t thought much about the potential impact on pets. There are plenty of dogs out there who will happily slurp an unattended beer, jump on tables and clear them of everything even remotely edible or root through trash like a pig in slop.
Cats eat plants. Marijuana was a plant, last I checked.
It only stands to reason that if more people have dried pot, pot plants or pot-laced confections around the house, dogs and cats will swallow more of it.
I’m not sure if Dale Animal Hospital was prompted to write the blog post because they’d treated a stoned animal or because they’d read this article on the danger of weed to animals and thought it was important enough to bring up.
Either way, it was more interesting than another email reminder that Cassie needs a checkup.
We media types got an email yesterday from the Attorney General’s office informing us that it was once again National Consumer Protection Week.
You probably had no idea. I bet it totally slipped your mind. I bet you bought exactly zero gifts for the occasion, and that you have nothing to wear for this weekend’s National Consumer Protection Week cocktail parties.
Shame on you.
In seriousness, though: The week is a reason to talk about an issue that never goes away. Consumers get ripped off every day in more ways than anyone has time to present in a single blog post. Credit card companies charge erroneous fees, debt collectors break laws during phone calls, shady dealers of goods and services attempt to enforce shady contracts, and so on.
In South Dakota, the Attorney General’s office is the enforcement agency that handles these complaints, and they’re incredibly busy. Last year, the consumer protection division fielded 30,677 complaints through telephone calls, emails and letters.
How many people are handling those complaints? Not many.
Every year during legislative budget hearings, Attorney General Marty Jackley gives lawmakers a rundown of the division’s personnel that goes like so: There are six investigators - who are not sworn law enforcement officers - one intake person to take and sort the initial complaints and one deputy attorney general who prosecutes criminal scammers.
If an investigation is necessary, a DCI agent is pulled in to handle that part of the work, but there is no sworn agent whose primary job is to investigating scams.
Basically, there are eight people working to handle 30,677 consumer complaints.
The other interesting number in Jackley’s Monday press release is this one: $9,446,810. That’s the amount of money recovered by the consumer protection division last year.
It’s a pretty big number, but there are some caveats. More than half came in as part of multi-state settlements.
That means that the state is part of a multi-state lawsuit or complaint, a company pays up, and the AG’s office distributes the money. Some of it goes to consumer protection education or some other specified purpose, but a good portion of it goes to consumers.
The other half of the recoveries still represents a pretty large number: $4,585,550. That’s money recovered by the AG’s office for consumers in and outside of South Dakota. That could be money recovered for a South Dakotan from an out-of-state business or money recovered on behalf of an out-of-stater who did business with a South Dakota company, according to AG spokesperson Sara Rabern.
Rabern spent seven years as an investigator, she said, and she explained that a good portion of an investigator’s work involves mediation and call routing.
You see, a lot of people who don’t understand why they’ve been charged a particular fee or feel they’ve been ripped off simply don’t have the right number to call. Sometimes people call a company’s consumer line and fail repeatedly to be connected with someone who can help them.
Investigators, Rabern said, generally know exactly who to call, particularly if the company against whom a complaint is filed is a large and reputable one. The investigator calls up the company, says “hey, this is the South Dakota Attorney General’s office and we’d like to ask you about this.”
Normally, she said, reputable companies would rather get to the bottom of a consumer complaint and deal with someone’s problem than scrap with a statewide law enforcement agency.
If there’s a pattern of ripoffs, there’s a possibility of a criminal investigation or a larger enforcement action, Rabern said, but most of the daily work at the CP division involves mediation on behalf of individual consumers.
If you want to get ahold of the consumer protection division, you’ll want to dial 1-800-300-1986 or email email@example.com. You could also visit the site at http://atg.sd.gov/Consumers.aspx for more information on protecting yourself.
It’s also notable here that Jackley is pushing a series of laws to strengthen consumer protection this session after a series of meetings with a task force through 2013. For more on those proposals, look here.
Here’s a breakdown of last year’s multi-state settlement numbers, again from Rabern:
Lender Processing Service (LPS) mortgage lending case: $ 344,750.00
Harms & MG Oil: $ 78,500.00 (total for both companies)
GlaxoSmithKline (Avandia) unlawfully promoted the diabetic drug: $1,203,083.00
1st Choice Sales & Marketing – timeshare out of Sioux Falls: $19,304.00
Pfizer – (Zyvox & Lyrica) off-label marketing: $627,435.00
Janssen (Risperdal) improperly marketed the antipsychotic drug: $2,588.188.00
TOTAL MULTI-STATE: $4,861,260.00
The murder trial of Congolese refugee Managabe Ally this week followed a familiar script.
Prosecutors blamed Ally, the last adult alone with 18-month-old Merveil Kasangu, for the child’s death. Kasangu died from blunt force trauma on Christmas Day in 2012.
Ally says Kasangu fell off an adult bed on Christmas Eve. From the moment police and EMTs arrived that day, Ally has maintained that he doesn’t know exactly how the injuries happened (he wasn’t in the room when the child fell, he says).
A jury decided yesterday that Ally was not guilty of the most egregious charges filed against him – first- and second-degree murder. They did, however, convict him on four counts of manslaughter.
The manslaughter conviction carries a sentence of up to life in prison. Murder would have brought an automatic sentence of life without parole.
Essentially, the jury decided that Ally did cause the child’s death, but that there was no premeditation (an element of first-degree murder) and that his behavior - whatever it was - didn’t show evidence of a depraved mind (an element of second-degree murder).
The nearest parallel in Minnehaha County is the case of Christopher Brian Fisher. Fisher, like Ally, was the boyfriend of the victim’s mother. He was left alone with the child, a 15-month-old named Preston Vensand, the night before Thanksgiving in 2008.
Fisher found the boy unresponsive that morning.
Like Ally, Fisher’s theory of the victim’s fatal abusive head trauma involved a fall: Fisher said the child fell in the bathtub the night before.
Like Ally, he accused Sioux Falls police detectives of pushiness, saying they refused to believe his story through hours of questioning.
Unlike Ally, Fisher did admit to shaking the child after that questioning, changing his story multiple times. Ally’s story remained fairly consistent from the start (there were some variations in his explanations about when he did the dishes before hearing Kasangu scream and the location where the boy was found, but no huge diversions).
There’s a familiar character in both trials: Dr. Janice Ophoven, the former Hennepin County Coroner who now consults for defense teams in “shaken baby” or abusive head trauma cases. She testified in both cases, reviewing autopsy results and relaying her findings to judges and juries. She’s testified in several other cases in Minnehaha County, as well.
Ophoven doesn’t believe in “shaken baby syndrome.” The science doesn’t support the diagnosis, she says. She also tends to find numerous explanations for head trauma that could explain what police generally see as clear signs of battery.
Ophoven’s testimony led to the tossing of murder charges against a man named Dustin Two Bulls in 2011, after a judge ruled that the medical evidence did not clearly support the prosecution’s version of events in the death of Deryun Wilson.
Ophoven is not alone in her belief that the “shaken baby” diagnosis unfairly points fingers at the last caregiver of a child: Dozens of convictions have been overturned in recent years.
All of this is to say that cases of a toddler death involving abusive head trauma are hard to make for prosecutors, especially if there are no witnesses or confessions.
A lot of the same issues are sure to present themselves in the fall, when Joseph Patterson goes on trial for the death of Tyrese Robert Ruffin in October.
Patterson was the live-in boyfriend of the boy, who happened to be the child of NFL star Adrian Peterson (who met Ruffin while the boy was on life support), and was the only one in the apartment when the child stopped breathing.
Patterson’s lawyer said his client admitted to nothing during a bond hearing last year. There was a sugary substance on the boy’s lips, he said, supporting a theory of possible choking.
Will a jury accept an alterative theory in that case? Is a manslaughter conviction – which leaves open the possibility of parole – be more a more likely outcome?
We’ll have to wait and see. Here’s something you can bank on: Ally’s conviction will be appealed. Fisher’s was, unsuccessfully.
We’re going to take a slight diversion from crime today and talk about technology and sex.
By way of explanation, let’s start here: In the twitter age, mapping things state-by-state is an incredibly valuable media tool. Coloring states with data on everything from income inequality or crime rates to highest-paid public official makes for irresistible click bait.
On more than one occasion, I’ve covered a crime story sparked by a map like this one, which says we rank last in protections for victims of sex trafficking.
Earlier today, I noticed a map from Jezebel with the same word in the title and nowhere near the same importance.
The map ranks states based on the average amount of time it takes couples to complete the act of intercourse – foreplay excluded.
The good people at Jezebel took data from 10,000 users of an iPhone and Android app called “Spreadsheets,” generously supplied by the developer, to rank each state.
Sex, a snazzy map and data: A click bait trifecta.
I noticed another familiar map feature right away: South Dakota was near the bottom. Second to last, in fact, with an average of one minute, thirty seconds per session.Only Alaskans fared worse (if we’re using the longer = better standard). The winning state was New Mexico, with an average of seven minutes, one second.
So here was my first thought: How many of the 10,000 app users, whose experiences are responsible for our awful ranking, are South Dakotans?
So I asked Danny Wax, the app designer who spoke with Jezebel.
Here’s his response:
“Our analytics show five logged sessions. Could be same couple … Or five couples logging one each. We have to get a larger presence in SD!!”
So there you have it. Five sessions. No telling what our stats would be if the prairie had as many sex-time trackers as pedometer users.
I suppose one could speculate that South Dakotans are a more private lot than most, that we don’t want or need to log our sexual endurance with a semi-social phone app.
But that wouldn’t explain why Nebraskans are so far ahead of us: They’re at number 9.
Minnesotans aren’t known as outlandish over-sharing types, but they’ve got 49 seconds on us.
And West Virginia at number 2? Seriously?
The idea is that you use the app with your partner, playfully, as the program lets users log achievements. Wax also told Jezebel the app could be a conversation starter in the post-coital moments.
Which I guess would mean a conversation where both parties are looking at their phones and not each other. I’m pretty sure that’s a thing that happens anyway.
Even in a record year for homicides in Sioux Falls, the death of Jason Hall stood out.
Hall, one of seven homicide victims in 2010, died two days after a beating from his best friend.
That friend, Burton Leroy Eagle Hawk, wasn’t just a lifelong buddy – he was essentially a family member. Eagle Hawk has children with Hall’s sister.
Hall died days after the beating, and Eagle Hawk ultimately got a three-year sentence for second-degree manslaughter. He was released in August, but is now facing felony drug possession charges and was in court today asking for a reduced bond.
Hall’s case doesn’t stand out for everyone. Today in court, Judge Joseph Neiles struggled to recall the details of the manslaughter, even though he was the one who gave Eagle Hawk the sentence.
“It’s a sad commentary on the high volume of cases we do that I don’t recall the case,” Neiles said.
I wouldn’t hold this against Neiles. He hears hundreds of criminal cases every year, plenty of which are incredibly tragic, and a good number of which involve family members and friends doing terrible things to each other. He’d only been handed the Eagle Hawk drug file moments before the bond hearing and hadn’t had much time to review it.
The prosecutor didn’t remember the details, either (he wasn’t working for the Minnehaha County State’s Attorney’s Office in 2010).
Neither did the defense lawyer, Julie Hofer, who didn’t represent Eagle Hawk in 2010 and had to turn and ask him for a rundown of the manslaughter case when Neiles asked her about it.
My guess is that most readers don’t remember much about the case, either. Remember, there were seven homicides in 2010. I remember it because I met some of the people involved and I still see them around town. Even so, I missed Eagle Hawk’s name the first time it appeared on the court calendar last month, too.
Here’s the story we ran in 2010 after Eagle Hawk was indicted for manslaughter.
Deadly fight ends lifelong friendship
By John Hult
On Aug. 19, lifelong friends Burton Eagle Hawk Jr. and Jason Hall spent most of the day drinking and having a good time.
At some point in the evening, however, the 26-year-olds began to argue. The argument led to blows, and when the fight was over, Hall was beaten bloody and lying unconscious in the street. He died of his injuries two days later.
Now, a grand jury has indicted Eagle Hawk on three counts of manslaughter, and friends and family are trying to understand how a close friendship could end so tragically.
The fight occurred about 6 p.m. as the men walked along 16th Street. Neighbors called 911, and Hall was found near the intersection of Duluth Avenue.
Eagle Hawk was arrested on charges of aggravated assault within minutes. He’d fled only about two blocks - to Hall’s house, where police found him.
Hall’s mother, Lenor Gary, wishes she understood how it all happened. Eagle Hawk wasn’t only Hall’s best friend. He is the father of two of her grandchildren.
She doesn’t even know what the fight was about.
"Nobody knows," she said. "All we know is that they were arguing."
At 4 p.m. Aug. 21, doctors at Sanford USD Medical Center told her that her son was brain dead, and she began to call his friends in to say their goodbyes. At 10 p.m., he was taken off life support.
Hall’s death certificate lists the cause of death as blunt head trauma with brain hemorrhaging aggravated by alcohol in the blood.
Gary now is struggling to come to grips with the bitter realities of the loss to her family. Hall has four young children, ranging in age from 5 months to 3 years.
"It’s hard to explain to them that Daddy’s never coming back," she said.
Justin Thoreson, a friend to both men, said the incident is tragic on too many levels. The families had known each other since childhood.
"Burt’s mom helped raised Jason, too," Thoreson said.
He remembers Hall the way his mother and many friends do - as a man who loved art and poetry, who took care of his children and made everyone laugh. Gary said her son would play mediator when fights broke out.
Eagle Hawk isn’t exactly a mediator, Thoreson said, but he wouldn’t call him a killer and can’t imagine what went through his mind when he heard the news of Hall’s death.
"He’s not the type of person who’d ever wanna kill someone," he said. "They were just drunk, they got in a fight, and it got out of hand."
Gary doesn’t know how she’ll put the incident behind her. Friends wrote Hall’s name in black chalk on the steps leading to her house a few days ago.
She wants to know why Eagle Hawk beat her son so badly. She doesn’t know what she’d say to him if she saw him again.
"I’ve been asking myself that - can I forgive him? He is the father of two of my grandchildren," she said. "I don’t know if I can."
Reach reporter John Hult at 331-2301.
Jeff Nolte, a former Canton city commissioner and currently-suspended Oldham-Ramona math teacher, was indicted this week for the alleged rape of an 8-year-old.
Before that, he’d been a proud advocate for foster parenting and adoption. He and his wife told Argus Leader reporter Beth Wischmeyer in 2012 that they’d taken care of 11 foster children beyond their own four adopted children.
He’s not a foster father any longer. This morning, I got an email confirming as much from Kristin Kellar, the spokesperson for the state Department of Social Services.
The last time Nolte cared for a child as a foster parent was December of 2011, Kellar wrote, when he had a child for five days on an emergency basis. The family had cared for a total of nine children since becoming licensed with the state in 2006.
Their license was revoked on Jan. 10, 2014, which was the first business day after his arrest on rape charges.
Lincoln County State’s Attorney Tom Wollman could not elaborate on the incidents in Canton that led to the charges or the relationship between Nolte and his victim, confirming only that the victim was not a student.
There’s a sad coda to this story, which dovetailed with the South Dakota Senate’s passage of a bill to create a task force on child sexual abuse: Nolte’s is another case involving a defendant trusted by the victim.
It’s important to note that Mr. Nolte is presumed innocent. We’re only in the beginning stages of the proceedings against him. Nothing has been proven. Because there is no affidavit or police report in the criminal file, we don’t know any details. We don’t know who said what about him, and we don’t know if Nolte made incriminating statements or denials.
There are plenty of examples of cases involving trusted defendants who were found guilty: Ted Klaudt, a former state legislator, is serving a 44-year sentence for molesting two of his foster daughters.
Nick Jastorff, a former Sioux Falls School District teacher, is serving a 45-year sentence for rape involving two girls who’d been students at Patrick Henry Middle School.
Jastorff and Klaudt stand out because they were relatively prominent defendants. More common are cases that don’t involve teachers or elected officials. I see indictments in Minnehaha County involving abuse by a family member on a distressingly regular basis.
Most abuse victims know their abuser. Holly Strand, a forensic interviewer from Rapid City told legislators during the debate on the Jolene’s Law bill that she’d interviewed 925 abuse victims over the years. Of those, only six were targeted by strangers.
Schools and parents still teach “stranger danger” to children, Strand said, but those lessons gloss over the most frequent dangers children face.
Ironically, after listening to the committee hearing on that bill, I switched over to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where they were debating a bill that would disallow registered sex offenders from loitering in public libraries. That bill coasted to passage, with support from law enforcement, prosecutors and librarians.
This is not to say that there aren’t bad actors who target children. Testimony on the loitering bill included talk of real cases where sex offenders had harassed library patrons.
The notion that strangers in white vans will snatch up our children is more dramatic and frightening than the reality faced by the majority of abuse survivors, however.
It’s also easier to live with on a day-to-day basis. It puts the blame for child rape on random, lollipop-holding boogeymen who swoop in to victimize the vulnerable and paints a nightmarish picture of abuse that we feel comfortable looking at largely because we can so easily paint ourselves out of it.
It’s much harder to walk through our days knowing that one in four girls and one in six boys are molested by age 18, and that most of them are hurt by people we’ve placed our trust in.
South Dakota is sometimes known as a state that lags behind in regulations concerning new technology.
We’re still debating a prohibition on texting and driving now, long after most states have banned the practice. We were also one of the last states to lower the blood alcohol content for DUI charges from .10 to .08 and resisted seatbelt laws for years.
That might not be the case for e-cigarette regulations. Sen. Dan Lederman, R-Dakota Dunes, is pushing legislation that would ban the sale of “alternative nicotine products” to anyone under the age of 18.
That would include any product that produces inhalable nicotine vapor. We commonly call them “e-cigarettes,” and they’re sold at gas stations, drug stores and other retailers under names such as Blu, NJOY, V2 and a host of others (full disclosure: I switched from regular cigs to e-cigs last year).
Lederman’s bill would also ban kids from owning, using or buying e-cigarettes. South Dakota would join at least 20 states with similar restrictions.
Most e-cigarette packages explicitly state that the products aren’t to be sold to minors, and the two e-cig retailers in Sioux Falls have “no sales to minors” rules of their own.
Lederman’s bill would make those prohibitions explicit. That’s a regulation supported by a group called the “Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives Association.”
What Lederman’s bill won’t do is clear the air (see what I did there?) in the debate about the public health virtues or pitfalls of electronic cigarettes, which supporters call essentially harmless but detractors see as a path to a dangerous normalization of nicotine addiction.
For a taste of those arguments, check here, here or here.
Lederman’s bill has not appeared in a committee yet.
We’ve had a rash of armed robberies this year in Sioux Falls.
Police believe that two men are responsible for at least five of them, and those men were captured about a week ago after the early morning robbery of a Kum and Go station.
This week, however, there was still another armed robbery. This time, the target was the Fireside Lounge and Casino, robbed at gunpoint by two men on Wednesday morning.
The penalty for armed robbery, if you’re caught, is a maximum of 25 years in prison. In reality, most people don’t get a maximum sentence.
To illustrate, let’s talk about Derick Craig Johnson, a 24-year-old Sioux Falls man who picked up a robbery conviction before his 21st birthday.
Johnson and his uncle, Robert Thomas Johnson, age 25, robbed Deuces Casino on 41st Street on July 31, 2009.
The younger Johnson got a 10 year prison sentence, with six years suspended and credit for nearly a half a year served (he was jailed right after police caught him, which was the morning of the robbery).
He didn’t serve all four years. He was paroled on July 26, 2011.
It didn’t take long for him to get in trouble again. He was ticketed for careless driving in Turner County in June, then picked up another felony charge in Sioux Falls the following month.
Derick Johnson is accused of forging two checks, and court documents say he told detectives he found the victim’s checkbook near St. Francis House and used it to write checks in June to Get N Go and Walmart.
Here’s the upshot for Derick: Because of his robbery conviction, he not only faces the prospect of an 10 years in prison for forgery (maximum penalty for a non-felon is five years), but could be sent back to prison immediately to serve his suspended robbery sentence.
His parole agent has the authority to order him back to prison.
They’ll need to catch him first, though. He’s listed as a fugitive on gotwarrants.org, Minnehaha County’s warrant database.
Reporter Steve Young and I each witnessed an execution by lethal injection at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in the space of two weeks in October of 2012. I witnessed Eric Robert's execution, he witnessed Don Moeller's.
We both wrote plenty about the executions and the people who were executed that fall. As you might expect, we talked plenty about the death penalty in the weeks and months that followed.
Last winter, Young mentioned that Charles Rhines, who is now the longest-serving death row inmate in the state, was a frequent letter-writer. Over the years, he’d chimed in on the Argus Leader’s editorial page about everything from inmate rights to Tinky Winky the Teletubby.
“If I were you, I might write him a letter and see if he’d talk,” Young said.
The idea was to see if Mr. Rhines could shed any light on life on South Dakota’s death row, whether two decades there had changed him, and whether he was at all effected by watching three men lead to the execution chamber.
More than 10 months and 100 pages later, we’re publishing two stories about his case, his views and his survivors. The stories come as Rep. Steve Hickey, a Sioux Falls pastor and Republican legislator, prepares to push for a ban on the death penalty. Rhines also ran out of state-level appeals last month, which was the 21st anniversary of his sentence.
Rhines was surprisingly open in his letters. Too open, in fact. Initially, he said he’d only write to me if got editorial approval of the story. Too many times, he wrote, his words had been “cherry-picked” and taken out of context by reporters.
I told him I couldn’t offer him story approval. No one gets that. I told him what I could do was post my questions and his answers on my blog and talk him through parts of the story over the phone if he was worried that I’d misunderstood him or mischaracterized what he’d said.
He wrote that he’s too much of an introvert to talk on the phone and that he hadn’t since 1998, but he agreed to answer my questions.
In hindsight, I should have known he’d take the offer as carte blanche to write anything on his mind and that he has more time to write down his thoughts than the average person. Anyone who’d dealt with him in the past could have warned me as much.
We couldn’t justify publishing everything. There was too much, too many accusations about too many people, and it would set a poor precedent.
I wrote last month to tell him we could only post portions of the letters and to give him the anticipated publication date. That date came and went without word from him (the story was held a week for a handful of reasons).
Last week, I hand-delivered a letter to the pentitentiary offering him another opportunity to say no to being quoted. On Thursday night, he called my cell phone.
He wasn’t nearly as interested in hearing how I’d used his letters as I’d expected. By the time he called, he’d concluded that I was planning to write whatever I wanted, regardless of his feelings on the matter.
“You’re just going to publish what you’re going to publish,” he said.
Oddly enough, former warden Doug Weber told me nearly the same thing a week before that. Weber didn’t like the idea of posting Rhines’ letters.
I did walk Rhines through the parts of the story where I used his quotes. I also reiterated that a lot of people would say a lot of things about him in the story that he probably wouldn’t like. I said I’d spoken to several of the people connected to the case and could write something without his input if he changed his mind.
At the end of our two conversations (inmate phone calls can only run 20 minutes at a time), I felt he was prepared for what would come.
This was an odd situation to be in, as a reporter. Rhines is a killer, a death row inmate whose actions have forever altered the lives of the people around him, a man periodically in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. He’s also a person with a unique vantage point on one of the most contentious moral issues facing the public.
I tried to treat him as much like any source as I could, given the restrictions of his living arrangement, the sensitivity of the story and the fact that he’s fighting for his life through appeals.
My hope is that the letters I post here and the stories we publish add something to our understanding of how the death penalty works in South Dakota.
Here are three of the Rhines letters, with slight redaction.
Rhines 03282013 (DP)