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South Dakota attorney general pleads not guilty to misdemeanors in fatal car-pedestrian crash

On the six-month anniversary of a deadly collision with a 55-year-old Highmore man on Highway 14, South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg — through his attorney — entered a plea of "not guilty" to three misdemeanors on Friday. His attorney told the judge that there's a "mountain range" of evidence and the AG wants a trial.

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The two county prosecutors -- Beadle County State's Attorney Mike Moore and Sully County Deputy State's Attorney Emily Sovell (from L to R) -- descend from the third floor of the Hughes County Courthouse following a proceeding during which South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, through an attorney, entered a plea of "not guilty" to three misdemeanors related to a fatal crash last fall just west of Highmore, S.D. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)
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PIERRE, S.D. — The embattled attorney general of South Dakota pleaded not guilty Friday, March 12, to three misdemeanor charges from a fatal crash when he killed a pedestrian along a roadside with his Ford Taurus.

Although Jason Ravnsborg, 44, of Pierre, did not physically appear at the Hughes County Courthouse, his attorney, Timothy Rensch, of Rapid City, told retired Sixth Judicial Circuit Judge John Brown that the proceeding, which was only supposed to an initial appearance, should jump ahead to arraignment, adding, "since we're all here, we might, as well."

"In some cases there's a mountain of discovery," said Rensch, referring to the investigation attorneys make in arguing a case. "In this case, there's a mountain range of discovery."

Ravnsborg is charged with three Class 2 misdemeanors, including distracted driving, improper lane change, and use of a cellphone, with each carrying a penalty of 30 days in jail, $500, or both. Ravnsborg was not using his cellphone at the time of the crash, according to prosecutors.

While driving home from a political fundraiser in Spink County Sept. 12, 2020, Ravnsborg hit and killed pedestrian Joe Boever, 55, of Highmore, S.D. Ravnsborg called 911 and reported that he had hit something that damaged his car. Boever’s body was found the next day by Ravnsborg and his chief of staff, Tim Bormann.

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Friday's court date was the sixth-month anniversary of the fatal crash.

Boever's widow and other family members were present in the courtroom. Nick Nemec, a cousin of Boever's, told reporters outside the courthouse that the victim's widow "just wants to make a presence."

Regarding the supposed "mountain range" of evidence to dig through, Nemec was skeptical of the defense attorney's claim.

"It's not going to take a deep dig into the mountain to find the evidence (to convict)," Nemec said.

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Nick Nemec, cousin to Joe Boever, who was killed when South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg struck him on the shoulder of a U.S. highway last fall, speaks to reporters after a court hearing on Friday, March 12 — the six-month anniversary of the crash. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)

Outside the courthouse Friday, Rensch declined to make a comment, though he observed it's "pretty typical" for clients in these kinds of cases not to appear in public.

Earlier this week, Rensch filed a motion to prohibit the use of cameras and audio broadcasting from the Hughes County Courthouse. Although the case's venue is technically Hyde County, and the lead prosecutor, Emily Sovell, is the deputy state's attorney for Sully County, Judge Brown moved the case to Hughes County, blocks from the state Capitol, where more members of the state's press corps are located.

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The two prosecuting attorneys, Sovell and Beadle County State's Attorney Mike Moore, briefly spoke to reporters. Sovell noted that the proceedings taking place in Hughes County, which is part of the Sixth Judicial Circuit, is not technically a change of venue.

Hughes County "had a little more access" to courthouse staff to aid with the proceeding, Sovell said.

The path to court

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Jason Ravnsborg

The case has drawn extraordinary attention from the state's residents and journalists across the country, largely due to its bizarre circumstances. In a Sept. 13 news conference, Gov. Kristi Noem said Ravnsborg thought he'd hit "a deer" but in fact had collided with a human.

Evidence released in an investigative video — subsequently yanked from a state website following a judge's gag order — revealed that Boever's face had partially crashed through Ravnsborg's windshield.

Nevertheless, one detail that's remained consistent throughout the case: The Hyde County Sheriff loaned Ravnsborg his vehicle to drive back to Pierre the evening of the crash. When Ravnsborg and his assistant came back the next morning to return the vehicle, Ravnsborg says he saw Boever's body lying along the road.

While Ravnsborg has refused to step down from his job duties, the stakes of the court case are high, as earlier this week an impeachment resolution was passed in the House of Representatives. The resolution's prime sponsor, Rep. Will Mortenson, R-Pierre, said lawmakers should wait for the outcome of the criminal case before considering whether to proceed with an impeachment process.

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The Legislature finished its session Thursday, March 11, so any future action would likely need to happen in a special session.

The next court proceeding is expected in mid-May, with Rensch telling Judge Brown that Ravnsborg ultimately wants a trial.

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