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Failure of SB 109 keeps death penalty on table for prosecutors

Brent Duerre

After a hearing at Senate Judiciary Committee, South Dakota will continue the practice of executing inmates. In a morning of emotionally charged testimony, a narrow vote has kept the practice in place.

Scripture, Gandhi, and gory crime scene details were all quoted Thursday in the arguments for and against the state’s practice of capital punishment.

By the end of the meeting, a lone vote led to SB 109’s failure this legislative session.

That bill, sponsored by Sioux Falls Democratic Sen. Reynold Nesiba, would have repealed the death penalty in the state.

“The death penalty is inhumane, it’s far more expensive than putting somebody in prison for life, it fails as a deterrent, it doesn’t address the root causes of crime, it’s been found to be biased against people experiencing poverty and people of color, it disproportionately hurts people with disabilities, it’s been used as a tool of authoritarianism in other countries, and it’s irreversible,” Nesiba said.

However, key supporters still believe in the deterring effect of the practice. Attorney General Marty Jackley said there’s no repercussions for an inmate with a life sentence if they kill again once inside.

Jackley used the cases of Eric Robert and Rodney Berget – a pair of inmates executed for the death of correctional officer RJ Johnson – as an example.

“Both of those guys were serving essential life sentences in the prison and killed a prison guard," Jackley said. "If you take away the death penalty, there would have been absolutely no penalty for that and they would have kept killing nurses, other prison guards, and inmates. If you don’t have the death penalty, there would have been no penalty for what he did.”

While Jackley frames South Dakota’s use of capital punishment as "sparing," statistically speaking executions in the state happen at a rate that hasn’t been seen since the 1800s. Of the 20 inmates put to death in state history, nine were executed between 1877 and 1900, while a quarter have been executed since 2007 — each via lethal injection.

Further, the Death Penalty Information Center tallies nearly 200 death row inmates nationwide who have been exonerated in the appeals process since 1973. While proponents said they don’t believe any of South Dakota’s recent executions have been of innocent people, the matter of the death penalty’s finality throws a cloud over its practice.

Ultimately, the bill was rejected on a 4-3 vote.

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering the legal system, education, and culture