ROSS: Janklow on trial: A powerhouse brought lowIt took place in the middle of a cold snap, familiar to South Dakotans, and much like the day he died. This day, the day Bill Janklow was found guilty, would forever alter his life.
By: Denise Ross, The Daily Republic
It took place in the middle of a cold snap, familiar to South Dakotans, and much like the day he died. This day, the day Bill Janklow was found guilty, would forever alter his life.
It was Dec. 8, 2003. A jury in his hometown of Flandreau convicted the town’s most famous son of felony manslaughter.
Janklow, I suspect, was brought low in much the same way he was by his brain cancer diagnosis. He knew things would never be the same. For all of the power and influence and just plain know-how he had gained as governor and, however briefly, a congressman, Janklow couldn’t escape the reality of what that one brief moment held forever in time.
He had driven through a stop sign, hit 55-year-old farmer Randy Scott on his motorcycle and killed him. It was Aug. 16, 2003, smack dab in the middle of Congress’ August recess.
I had the duty and the honor of covering Janklow’s trial as a reporter. I have always thought it stands as a testament to our American system — no matter how you feel about the outcome — that someone so powerful would be so systematically brought to account before a group of average folks.
While Janklow left this earth on Jan. 12, 2012, he left his life in politics on Dec. 8, 2003. And that impact was felt just as strongly across the state. I feel certain Janklow felt it just as strongly in his own heart. He said as much during his press conference announcing his cancer. His only regret in life, he said, was not stopping for that stop sign.
Most of us can only imagine how that singular event haunted his remaining years. He had been charging full steam ahead in Congress, his time as governor cut short by our system’s arbitrary term limits. While he so fully occupied the governor’s chair that the job in many ways remains synonymous with his name, he was navigating the more frustrating job of congressman with the flair and bombast so many had come to either love or disdain about him.
At 64, he was far from done as a politician. So to see him at the defendant’s table day-in and day-out, like so many others I had seen on trial, felt each time like I’d slipped down the rabbit hole.
The courtroom was packed, so one dared not dally (I don’t think I ate lunch all week). The kind courthouse staff offered the media a room with a single, dial-up Internet connection. In those pre-WiFi days, the state and national reporters took turns plugging our little phone lines into that single port and praying to make a connection and send off our story in time to get back before the lunch break ended.
As the trial and testimony wore on, it seemed inevitable to me that Janklow would be convicted. The jury could not split the difference and find him guilty only of misdemeanor reckless driving and not of felony manslaughter, as the legal definition of “reckless” was woven into the manslaughter charge.
Janklow’s defense team backed off from its opening statements and did not offer some testimony it had promised regarding physical evidence about his speed at the time of the crash and other details. Still, a total acquittal seemed entirely possible, especially given the theater involved.
Alas, that was not to be. And in the moment that Bill Janklow’s life was forever changed, so, too, was South Dakota politics. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin won the special election to replace Janklow, launching a whole new saga on our political stage — one that still plays out.
John Thune went on to defeat Tom Daschle for the U.S. Senate seat barely a year later. South Dakota’s political junkies have continued to devour the morsels of some great dramas.
It’s just that there’s been a bit of flavor missing ever since late 2003.