South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, the state’s top law enforcement officer, pleaded no contest on Thursday to misdemeanor traffic charges stemming from a fatal crash in September 2020 that killed a 55-year-old man walking along the shoulder of U.S. Highway 14.
Ravnsborg, who was able to avoid both trial and jail time in light of the plea deal, was fined $500 for each of two misdemeanor charges, and a judge ordered that he pay court costs. But a third misdemeanor charge of careless driving was dropped.
In an interview with the Associated Press earlier this week, Beadle County State’s Attorney Michael Moore said, “[T]here won’t be a trial and there will be a plea entered,” citing a court order he said prevented him from sharing further details. The deal will be formalized on Thursday, the day Ravnsborg’s trial was set to start, according to Moore.
An accident report released by investigators last November stated that a distracted Ravnsborg veered onto the strip of asphalt where Joseph Boever was walking on the night of Sept. 12 and hit him. Ravnsborg, who was driving home from a GOP fundraiser, was allegedly going 67 mph at the time, or 2 mph over the speed limit. He was later charged with use of an electronic device while driving, illegal lane change, and careless driving: Misdemeanors which, if convicted, could have landed him in jail for up to 30 days on each count, along with a maximum fine of $500.
In a 911 call Ravnsborg made immediately following the crash, he identified himself as the state’s attorney general and told the dispatcher that he “hit something” that might have been a deer.
“Are you injured at all, Jason?” the 911 dispatcher asked Ravnsborg.
“I am not, but my car sure as hell is,” he replied, apparently unaware that he had struck and killed a human being until the next day.
An eyewitness spotted Boever walking along the north shoulder shortly before the crash. He had wrecked his own pickup about a mile west of the site earlier in the day and may have been walking back to his truck that night.
Lawyers for Ravnsborg filed a motion in July alleging a history of alcoholism and drug abuse by Boever. The filing cited a relative of Boever’s, who claimed Boever was depressed and that they believed Boever had been considering suicide. Because things seemed to be getting ugly, Boever’s family feared a trial would have become a forum for Boever’s life and medical and psychological history to be explored and exploited—a situation they will now not have to endure.
“Joe will be put on trial. The defense will continue to attempt to smear Joe with charges of drug use or other intoxication,” Nick Nemec, a Holabird farmer and former Democratic state legislator who has served as a family spokesman, told The Daily Beast before word of the plea deal emerged.
The defense also indicated in a court filing that Boever was going through a divorce: his wife Jenny had moved out of their home, and Boever was taking Lorazepam, an anti-anxiety medicine. According to a previous court filing by the defense, a pill bottle found in his pickup contained just 12 capsules but had been filled for 90 just the day before.
The Daily Beast was unable to contact Jenny Boever, Joseph Boever’s widow, on Wednesday. But Nemec said she was told of the incipient plea deal on Tuesday and was not happy about it.
“She thinks it’s a coward’s way out,” Nemec said. “It’s cowardly on the part of Ravnsborg and the prosecutor. She’s disappointed the state’s attorney did not go ahead with [the trial].”
Nemec said Jenny Boever also is disappointed that Ravnsborg never reached out to the family to express any regret or sorrow. She would still accept an apology from Ravnsborg, Nemec said.
“At least it would show he manned up and took responsibility,” he said. “I don’t expect it. I don’t think he has it in him.”
Ravnsborg’s claim he was unaware he had struck a person was met with a great deal of doubt, which only grew when recorded interviews with a pair of North Dakota investigators were released. Boever’s face came through the windshield, one investigator said, and his glasses were found in Ravnsborg’s car.
“That means his face came through your windshield,” a North Dakota Bureau of Investigation agent told Ravnsborg in one interview. “His face is in your windshield. Think about it.”
Ravnsborg—who the interviews revealed may have been reading a far-right conspiracy theory about Joe Biden seconds before the crash—objected when Gov. Kristi Noem ordered the videos released, and they were taken down from a state website days later. Copies remain online.
Ravnsborg has refused to step down despite calls for his resignation by everyone from the victim’s family to his fellow Republicans and incumbent governor. Undeterred, Ravnsborg continues to campaign for a second term.
Ravnsborg’s attorney, Timothy Rensch, did not respond to a request for comment. Ravnsborg himself has declined most interview requests, stating he is innocent of wrongdoing. His spokesman, Mike Deaver, a Salt Lake City public relations specialist, has not responded to calls, emails, or texts seeking comment.
Boever’s widow reportedly plans to file a wrongful death suit against Ravnsborg.
This isn’t the first time a prominent South Dakota politician has been caught up in a fatal crash. In 2011, U.S. Rep. Bill Janklow ran a stop sign near the small town of Trent and struck and killed a Minnesota man. Janklow, a former attorney general and four-term Republican governor who had openly bragged about his speeding during his long, colorful political career, contested the charges but was found guilty by a Moody County jury in Flandreau, the small town where he grew up.
Janklow was convicted of second-degree manslaughter in the death of Randy Scott of Hardwick, Minnesota, as well as speeding, reckless driving, and running a stop sign. He was sentenced to 100 days in jail. Janklow resigned from Congress and never sought elective office again. Hardwick’s family received a $1 million settlement from the federal government. Janklow resumed his law practice but was diagnosed with brain cancer in the summer of 2011 and died on Jan. 12, 2012.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story inaccurately described the crash as a hit and run. We regret the error.