Troopers ‘weren’t allowed’ to give presentation during Ravnsborg impeachment inquiry, DPS tells lawmakers
During a briefing for lawmakers surrounding Jason Ravnsborg's 2020 crash, troopers told legislators they weren't allowed to give a presentation of their findings to the House Select Committee on Investigation.
PIERRE, S.D. — Troopers who investigated the scene of a fatal crash involving South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg say they “weren’t allowed” to give a presentation of their findings to a House committee that probed the incident.
The House Select Committee on Investigation on March 28 recommended that Ravnsborg not be impeached for striking and killing pedestrian Joe Boever on Sept. 12, 2020.
A presentation containing detailed findings by South Dakota Highway Patrol trooper John Berndt and Sgt. Kevin Kinney saw the light of day for the first time Wednesday afternoon, April 6, as the South Dakota Department of Public Safety gave a briefing in Pierre to lawmakers on their investigation into the crash.
During a question-and-answer portion following the conclusion of the presentation, Rep. Tim Goodwin, R-Rapid City, who requested DPS host the briefing, asked Berndt and Kinney if they had given their presentation to the House Select Committee during their testimony on Jan. 18.
“No, sir,” responded Berndt, a 20-year veteran of the Highway Patrol who assisted with the mapping and investigation of the crash.
Rep. Linda Duba, D-Sioux Falls, later asked why the troopers didn’t give the committee the same presentation she had just taken in.
“We had prepared this same exact presentation for the House committee. When we got there, we were advised that they had read all our reports and they would ask us questions,” said Kinney, who has served as a trooper for the past 18 years. “We weren’t allowed to give our presentation. We were only allowed to answer the questions they had in regard to Attorney General Ravnborg’s crash.”
In a phone call with the Mitchell Republic following the briefing, Duba said she was disappointed the committee didn’t hear the presentation, noting it could’ve given valuable insight ahead of the committee’s do-not-impeach recommendation.
“They had some excellent info that they could’ve shared. … Obviously a good followup question would be for [committee chair Spencer] Gosch to say ‘Why didn’t we get to hear these individuals?'” Duba said.
Though the presentation was not given during their testimony, both Berndt and Kinney, who were subpoenaed by the committee, did turn over detailed reports that were reviewed by committee members in January.
“I did listen to the hearing where similar evidence was presented, but I think it would’ve been helpful for the committee to hear it from two different sources and hear that it’s glaringly accurate,” Duba explained.
In a phone call with the Mitchell Republic, Gosch, who also serves as the speaker of the House, said Kinney's claim mischaracterized the committee's decision not to hear their presentation.
"Essentially, [the committee] had all the documents they presented today, plus we had a lot more," Gosch said. "We had already seen them. We didn’t need talking points. We had questions."
Gosch said the methodology of the committee's subpoenas, especially having each expert sequestered, gave them a better picture than the presentation would have, and even highlighted some differences between experts.
"Today you heard that his body was carried (by Ravnsborg's car). Well we heard another expert say it was vaulted," Gosch said. "We had three contradictory arguments."
Another discrepancy Gosch pointed to was blood splatter found on a fork in the ditch. Though the troopers told lawmakers the fork had human blood on it, Gosch said they omitted the fact that the blood's lab analysis came back inconclusive.
"We also in the meantime got supplemental reports," Gosch said, noting some information from Wednesday's briefing was added as late as March 9. "They've been changing that story since Day 1. There’s a lot of contradictory information they’ve been presenting."
Gosch said he believes the committee did a thorough job "with the facts in front of us" and stands by the work and recommendation of the committee.
In the September 2020 incident, Ravnsborg drove his vehicle onto the shoulder of U.S. Highway 14 west of Highmore, South Dakota, and struck and killed pedestrian Boever, 55, of Highmore. Ravnsborg last year pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor unsafe driving charges.
Wednesday’s briefing came just six days before the House of Representatives will meet to speak and debate on the committee’s do-not-impeach recommendation. If further action is deemed necessary, articles of impeachment can be introduced.
Berndt and Kinney spent nearly an hour presenting the facts of the case that South Dakota Highway Patrol had concluded.
Though the troopers only spoke directly to the investigation they conducted, and strayed away from speculation that may exist as a result of the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation’s findings, they offered one major conclusion: based on facts, Ravnsborg was distracted.
“A non-distracted driver would see Mr. Boever. It is proven he was distracted,” Berndt said, reading directly from the presentation. “Attorney General Ravnsborg was proven to be driving on the shoulder of the road.”
Beyond commenting on Ravnsborg’s distracted driving, using evidence maps, physics and exemplar testing with a rental vehicle of a similar make and model to the vehicle Ravnsborg was driving that night, Berndt and Kinney offered other significant conclusions to lawmakers.
“Attorney General Ravnsborg crosses the rumble strip with both sides of his vehicle. Attorney General Ravnsborg is driving completely on the shoulder near the ditch.,” Berndt continued reading from the presentation. He said that Ravnsborg twice walked past Boever’s body, which he described as "naked" from the impact.
According to the committee's report, Boever's lower left leg was amputated by the collision and he had multiple contusions and fractures all over his body.
Despite these conclusions, Rep. Fred Deutsch, R-Florence, said he was recently in a car crash that left him disoriented, and questioned if it was possible Ravnsborg’s actions could have been a result of a post-crash daze.
Kinney said, speaking from his experience, there was “really no reason” for any disorientation from a vehicle-pedestrian crash.
Questions from lawmakers lasted for approximately 30 minutes after the conclusion of the presentation. Rep. Greg Jamison, R-Sioux Falls, however, noted that while the presentation was necessary for lawmakers, some of their questions seemed to be an attempt to find new evidence, instead of working with what’s been presented to them.
“The question before [the Legislature] will be, are the charges essentially grounds for impeachment — not the facts of the case, because the facts of the case and the outcomes are only what’s determined by the court,” Jamison said. “It’s almost as though some of us were looking for new facts to unravel and make something change. Nothing’s gonna change and the outcome is the outcome, and that’s what we’re gonna vote on.”
Jamison noted that while he’s having a hard time believing Ravnsborg struck a pedestrian without knowing it, he also believes it’s important to trust and respect a prosecutor’s decision, leaving him struggling with his vote.
“What weighs on all of our minds is how does somebody know they hit somebody and not know they hit somebody. That’s hard to get past. Could I have come up with a different conclusion if I was a prosecutor? It’s just reviewing all the facts,” Jamison said. “It's gonna be more pointed to the facts of the charges he received, are they impeachable. That’s what's in front of us, that's what's on the agenda.”
Members of the South Dakota House of Representatives will meet for a special session on Tuesday, April 12, to decide what will come next, if anything, in the impeachment inquiry.