The widow of the man South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg ran over and killed attended the first court hearing for the case Friday, even as Ravnsborg himself had his lawyer stand in on his behalf to enter a not guilty plea.
Jenny Boever was present in the Hughes County courtroom in Pierre at 4 p.m. Friday as the initial appearance for three misdemeanor charges was held. But she did not get to face Ravnsborg, whose lawyer, Tim Rensch, entered a plea of not guilty to all three charges on the attorney general's behalf.
Michael Moore, the Beadle County state’s attorney who is assisting Hyde County Deputy State Attorney Emily Sovell, initially told The Daily Beast it was “unlikely” a plea would be entered on Friday or that sentencing would occur.
The victim’s family made it a point to show up anyway.
“I will be there Friday, as will Jenny. I’m a little irritated they moved the initial hearing to Hughes County,” Joe Boever’s cousin Nick Nemec, a farmer and former Democratic legislator who has served as the family’s spokesman, said ahead of the hearing.
“It almost seems as though an effort is underway to make the entire process easier for Ravnsborg, his attorney and the judge,” Nemec told The Daily Beast of the decision to move the hearing nearly 50 miles away. “No consideration is made for the family of the victim.”
Moore explained why it was relocated.
“It is in Pierre for convenience of the parties but the venue remains in Hyde County,” he said.
Hyde County Clerk of Courts Marilyn Hanson said she found out the case was moved when the judge’s order arrived. Hanson said the Hyde County courtroom is small and “antiquated” and there is no elevator in the building.
No cameras will be allowed in the Pierre courtroom, since Ravnsborg objected, according to Sixth Circuit Court Administrator Heather Covey. Audio will be available to the public and media, Moore said, since retired Sixth Circuit Judge John L. Brown approved that.
Ravnsborg is charged with operating a vehicle while using a mobile electronic device, illegal lane change, and careless driving. The maximum penalty for each is 30 days in jail and a $500 fine, meaning he could serve, at most, 90 days behind bars for the crash that left a man dead.
The fatal crash occurred on Sept. 12 as the first-term Republican attorney general drove back to Pierre, the state capital, from a Republican Party event in Redfield, South Dakota.
Sovell, a 2001 classmate of Ravnsborg at the University of South Dakota school of law, waited more than five months before announcing the charges at a Feb. 18 press conference.
Moore, one of three other county attorneys who consulted with Sovell, said at the press conference in Pierre that the evidence and state law didn’t allow for more severe charges, such as vehicular homicide or second-degree manslaughter.
The state does not have a negligent homicide law, Moore noted.
“Recklessness is an extremely high burden for us to establish and in this case we don't have it,” Moore said. “I don’t feel good about it but it’s the right decision.”
Sovell has not responded to numerous requests for comment. She did one brief press conference when the charges were announced but has not spoken to any reporters before or since.
The announcement of the three misdemeanor charges against Ravnsborg was met with outrage across the state. Gov. Kristi Noem, who had been urging prosecutors to wrap up the case, ordered the state to release more than three hours of video showing interviews Ravnsborg did with a pair of North Dakota detectives on Sept. 14 and 30.
In the interviews, it was revealed that Boever’s face literally came through the windshield of the 2011 Ford Taurus that Ravnsborg was driving at the time of the crash. His shattered glasses were found inside the car.
“His face was in your windshield, Jason, think about that,” said North Dakota Bureau of Investigation Supervisory Special Agent Arnie Rummel.
Still, Ravnsborg stood by his story that he didn’t realize what he had struck at 10:24 p.m. Sept. 12 on the westbound lane of U.S. Highway 14. He also denied using his cellphones—he had two in the car—until the investigators told him they had evidence he had been on several political websites right before the crash.
“I don’t know what I would have done different,” Ravnsborg said. “I believe I was in the road, and I believe I set my phone down, shut the radio off, and was looking to put the cruise control on.”
While he has said from the start, including in his 911 call moments after the crash, that the object he struck was “in the middle of the road,” the crash investigation revealed Boever was walking on the shoulder of the road and carrying a flashlight.
After the crash, Ravnsborg was loaned a personal car that belonged to Hyde County Sheriff Mike Volek, who did not test him for alcohol use. The attorney general drove home and returned to Highmore in the morning when he, amazingly, discovered Boever’s body on the side of the road.
Neither Ravnsborg nor Sheriff Volek found the body after the crash. The crash report said Ravnsborg walked past it twice as he searched the area with his cellphone flashlight. Boever’s flashlight was found the next day, still on.
The release of the interviews, which Noem said she watched for the first time on Feb. 23, caused an explosion of activity in the state. While South Dakotans expressed their disbelief in Ravnsborg’s story, the legislature quickly moved to impeach him on Feb. 24. Noem said additional information would soon be released.
But all that came to a sudden halt when Judge Brown slapped a gag order on the case, ordering the videos be removed from the state website and no more information be released. The videos are still widely available on other sites.
Ravnsborg’s lawyer, Timothy J. Rensch of Rapid City, filed a motion asking for the clampdown on information and Brown, who is handling the case to avoid conflicts of interest for active judges, agreed.
Brown later ordered the case moved from Highmore, the Hyde County seat and the scene of the fatal crash, to Pierre, where Ravnsborg lives and works.
The legislature then ended all activity on impeachment, saying it would await a disposition on the criminal case. Ravnsborg applauded that move.
“The House’s action today will allow the legal system to proceed without further interference and with due process,” he said Monday in a statement released by his private spokesman. “I have cooperated fully with investigators and law enforcement in this matter and look forward to its resolution. I will continue to work every day for the people of South Dakota.”
Nemec is fed up with the delays.
“I am angry at the way the process is playing out,” he said. “At first it seemed as though the Republican machine here in South Dakota had had enough of Jason Ravnsborg and decided to throw him under the bus. It sure seems like that is/was Noem’s motivation, and it appeared the Legislature was going along.”
Nemec testified before the House State Affairs Committee as it weighed evidence for an impeachment trial, the first in state history. He said it was difficult to learn its schedule, and the committee chair and vice chair did not respond to his emails.
“This was especially irritating because Rep. Chris Johnson grew up in Highmore, he was two years behind me at Highmore High School,” he said. “During the 1972-73 school year, I boarded at his parents’ house; he and I shared a bedroom. We were altar boys together at Saint Mary Catholic Church. We were in band together ... 50-year-old friendships mean nothing.
“It certainly seems the Republican caucus had decided what was going to happen and the public be damned. Even if the public includes a former legislator who is a family member of the man Ravnsborg killed, who had politely and specifically asked questions about the process,” Nemec said. “I did not lobby them one way or the other. I was completely ignored. I have yet to get an answer to my emails. I don't know if they ignore all emails but their actions in this case are especially troubling.”
It leads him to one conclusion: “The fix was in,” he said.
Nemec wonders if Ravnsborg will request a jury trial. He doesn’t expect much of a penalty.
“I had said months before the charges were announced that I expected a charge of crossing the white line," Nemec said. “That is what the basic charge is. I now expect the eventual punishment will be a traffic fine, no jail time. Impeachment would surprise me.”
But he said it appears Ravnsborg’s political career is at an end. Former Attorney General Marty Jackley, who lost to Noem in the 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary, has said he wants his old job back.
“I doubt the 2022 GOP convention will renominate Jason Ravnsborg, there is only so much the SD Republican Party will put up with,” Nemec said. “Losing a SD attorney general race is not something they will risk.”
He said the timing of the hearing seems curious.
“I really don't know what to expect. Plea? Request for bench trial? Request for jury trial? So much is up in the air,” Nemec said. “A hearing at 4 p.m. on a Friday makes me think it will be a pro forma hearing at a time, date and place designed to be lost in the weekend. If it was at 9 a.m. on a Monday I would not have the gut feeling things were being swept under the rug.
“Lost in all of this is Joe Boever,” he said. “Joe was a good guy.”