Jason Ravnsborg, the South Dakota attorney general who ran over and killed a man on a highway in 2020, was convicted in an impeachment trial by state lawmakers on Tuesday, effectively ending his career.
The South Dakota Senate voted 24-9 to affirm count one against Ravnsborg, meeting the two-thirds majority needed to convict him and remove him from office. He was also convicted on the second count, 31-2, and two 33-0 votes barred him from ever holding office again.
Two of the 35 senators, one Democrat and one Republican, did not attend the trial. Republicans hold a 32-3 majority in the state Senate.
Instead of offering major revelations at the trial, prosecutors slammed Ravnsborg as a liar who fibbed about what happened on the night of the fatal crash—and again in the following months.
“We’ve heard better lies from 5-year-olds,” said prosecutor Mark Vargo.
Perhaps the sole bombshell at the trial was speculation offered by North Dakota Bureau of Investigation Agent Arnie Rummel that Ravnsborg may have contemplated fleeing the scene where he killed Joe Boever on US Highway 14 on Sept. 12, 2020. Rummel and Agent Joe Arenz were brought in to investigate the fatal crash, since the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation reports to the attorney general.
Rummel said Tuesday that Ravnsborg didn’t immediately stop his vehicle after striking Boever, instead rolling on for seven seconds, or 613 feet; the agent suggested he could have stopped in about 175 feet.
When Ravnsborg called 911 right after the crash, the then-attorney general said he was unsure who or what he hit, and agreed with a dispatcher who suggested it might have been a deer. But when Rummel testified before a special legislative committee earlier this year, he said he was convinced Ravnsborg saw Boever’s body right away.
“He walked by a flashlight that’s on,” he said. “There’s a body that’s laying within two feet of the roadway and obviously deceased and he’s all white, there isn’t any blood being pumped in him, and the fact [is] white is reflective, I believe that he’d have to see him.”
Senate Democratic Leader Troy Heinert, speaking just before the vote, said he believed Ravnsborg knew he had hit and killed a person. “He knew,” Heinert said. “He knew something terrible happened and he was going to have to answer for it and he panicked.”
Vargo, in his closing argument, told the senators it was their duty to convict the attorney general. “By deed and by word, Jason Ravnsborg has forfeited his right to be attorney general of this great state,” he said.
The defense did not present any witnesses, instead rebutting points made by investigators and questioning the authority of the state Senate to remove the attorney general from office.
Ravnsborg was present but did not testify.
“We choose not to call him as a witness,” his defense lawyer, Mike Butler of Sioux Falls, said. “I won’t go any farther than that.”
In his closing remarks, Butler questioned whether Ravnsborg could be removed for a driving offense, since it was not directly tied to his work as attorney general. “It must be a serious offense,” he said. “The Senate must not be reduced to the role of a traffic court.”
Gov. Kristi Noem—who is under investigation by Ravnsborg’s office for her use of state airplanes and her involvement in her daughter’s efforts to obtain a real estate appraiser license—will name a replacement to complete the last six months of Ravnsborg’s term. She has long made it abundantly clear that she felt Ravnsborg should resign, the feud between often getting remarkably personal.
“After nearly 2 years the dark cloud over the Attorney General’s office has been lifted,” the governor tweeted Tuesday night. “It is now time to move on and begin to restore confidence in the office.”
Noem, who is running for a second term, did not attend the trial, but surely watched closely since her offices are in the same building. She did not immediately announce whom she would name as interim attorney general. Former Attorney General Marty Jackley, who ran against Noem for the 2018 Republican gubernatorial nomination, is now seeking his old job back, and he and Noem have endorsed each other.
Jackley, when asked if he had a comment on the trial and if he would accept an appointment as attorney general, was terse.
“I’m practicing law and campaigning,” Jackley told The Daily Beast
Ravnsborg killed Boever while headed home to Pierre, the state capital, on Sept. 12, 2020, after attending a Republican event.
Boever was killed almost instantly after being struck, his right leg severed when hit by the attorney general’s private car. His body rode atop it, with his face busting through the windshield, and his broken glasses landing inside the vehicle.
The ousted attorney general has repeatedly said he didn’t see the man’s face inches from his own and had no idea what he had struck. Hyde County Sheriff Mike Volek, who lived nearby, responded to a 911 call by Ravnsborg. He provided Ravnsborg with a car to drive, and the attorney general headed to Pierre.
The next day, Ravnsborg returned to Highmore to drop off the car and, he said, discovered Boever’s body.
Ravnsborg, whose lengthy history of driving offenses was revealed after the fatal crash, was eventually charged with three misdemeanors: making an illegal lane change, using a phone while driving, and a careless driving charge. None were directly tied to striking and killing Boever.
Almost a year after the fatal crash, he struck a plea deal, pleading no contest to the illegal lane change and using his cellphone while driving. The careless driving charge was dismissed.
He never made an appearance in court. Instead, he was fined $1,000, ordered to pay $3,742 in court costs, and ordered to perform “a significant public service event” in each of the next five years.
For months, lawmakers showed little evidence of any appetite for impeachment. But on April 4, the South Dakota Department of Public Safety issued a report on the crash, and two days later, a pair of highway patrol troopers provided lawmakers with a damning briefing. New details escalated pressure on Republican lawmakers to go after their own.
The night before the House voted to impeach, Ravnsborg released a letter he sent to lawmakers, as well as a document in which he posed questions about the case and offered his take on them. He blamed Noem for placing pressure on him to resign from her, saying he felt obliged to remain in office to carry out investigations into her conduct as governor.
Noem responded to Ravnsborg’s allegations on Twitter.
“The Attorney General wants to make this about me to distract House members, when the question before them is whether he should be the state’s top law enforcement officer. He killed an innocent man, lied about the events of that evening, and abused his office to cover it up.
The vote to impeach him was very close, as the House of Representatives acted to impeach Ravnsborg, a first-term Republican, on a 36-31-3 vote. Impeachment required a majority of votes in the 70-member body, and 36 was the bare minimum. All eight Democrats voted in favor of impeachment, while 28 of the 62 Republicans joined them. Three didn’t cast a ballot.
Ravnsborg has reached an out-of-court settlement with Jenny Boever, the widow of the man he killed. He says he has apologized to the family, but Jenny Boever and Nick Nemec, Joe Boever’s cousin, said they haven’t heard one. They attended the trial Tuesday, as did other family members and some state officials.
Nemec, a former Democratic legislator, told The Daily Beast that Jenny Boever cried when the Senate voted to convict Ravnsborg. She left with one of the lawyers who represented her in the civil lawsuit and did not comment to reporters.
Nemec said he had a different emotion. He was unsure how the vote would come out.
“I was just relieved,” he said. “I was scared to try to make a prediction.”
Nemec, who was at every court and legislative hearing, had previously said he wasn’t pleased by how it played out.
“A lot of people around the state have told me there’s two systems of justice, one for the average Joes like Joe Boever, one for the important people,” he told The Daily Beast in April. “If there was one uniform system of justice, Ravnsborg would be in jail.”