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Hunhoff, Hickey Team to Repeal South Dakota Death Penalty

The South Dakota Legislature will debate the death penalty again this session. Democratic Senator Bernie Hunhoff (D-18/Yankton) and Republican Rep. Steve Hickey (R-9/Sioux Falls) lead a bipartisan team of sponsors on Senate Bill 121, which would remove death from the penalties permitted for Class A felonies and replace it with life imprisonment without parole.

Last year the Legislature killed Rep. Hickey's death-penalty repeal in House State Affairs by one vote. This year, the death penalty debate goes first to Senate State Affairs, where SB 121 sponsors Senator Hunhoff and Senator Billie Sutton (D-21/Burke) are the only Democrats among seven Republicans. But those Republicans will see the names of House colleagues among the sponsors, including former judge Rep. Tim Johns (R-20/Spearfish), conservative Rep. Scott Munsterman (R-7/Brookings), and formidable lawyer and Catholic Rep. Lee Schoenbeck (R-5/Watertown).

Conservatives looking for a reason to repeal the death penalty get a reminder from one of South Dakota's greatest liberals, former U.S. Senator Jim Abourezk, that the death penalty does not make fiscal sense:

In Texas, which boasts of the largest death row in the country, a death penalty case in 1996 cost taxpayers an average of $2.3 million, which is about three times the cost of imprisoning the accused in a single cell for 40 years. Other states report similar savings when the death penalty is not the issue in a criminal trial.

If the excessive cost of a death penalty trial is compared to a nondeath case, each state could increase police presence, police training and other matters designed to curb criminal activity, which is where the money should be spent [Jim Abourezk, "Is Death Penalty Too Costly for Taxpayers?" that Sioux Falls paper, 2015.02.02].

Expect serious, non-partisan fiscal and moral arguments in Senate State Affairs... and, we hope, on the floor of both chambers as this important bill advances.


  1. Troy 2015.02.02


    In the scheme of things, the cost differential is so small relative to the desire to have justice, invoking cost isn't pervasive to conservatives, especially if it comes from a side who doesn't accept arguments of cost-benefit on other programs but rely on a statement of "it's the right thing to do." I oppose the death penalty as you know and when I see this argument, I roll my eyes as nobody who leans to supporting it but open will be shamed into supporting it.

    Read rationales actually articulated by conservatives in opposition to DP. Or, work on Dems who support it, which I seem to recall is about 30%.

    This should not be a partisan issue and it will not pass if it is turned into one.

    Side note: I wish instead of having a bill this year opponents had spent a year communicating and building coalitions across traditional political lines. Two prime sponsors of different parties is only effective symbolically maybe in Pierre. The mindset in the public is another issue.

  2. larry kurtz 2015.02.02

    Partisan, my pink glutei. Anyone believing South Dakota will repeal capital punishment is delusional.

  3. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.02.02

    Troy, Mr. Abourezk would question your use of the word "justice." Abourezk prefers the terms "vengeance" and "blood lust."

    And Troy, how much time did legislators spend building coalitions for their proposals to further restrict Independent candidates and initiative and referendum?

  4. Troy 2015.02.02


    Let me give you an analogy where "fiscal sense" is ignored with regard to pursuit of justice.

    As you know, the US Dept. of Justice provides money to fund state and local public defense of people who can't afford their own defense. Either Congress or DOJ commissioned a study to assess whether dedicated Public Defenders Offices, quasi-government entities, or contracts with law firms where both more cost effective and efficacious with regard to sentencing.

    One of the things in the study was that with high incidence recidivists was that regardless of type of public defense (three options above), there was not only little difference in conviction rate but they got such a high conviction rate and maximum sentence under guidelines, a "fiscal" case could be made to just provide them a minimal defense if one at all. I think we can all agree such a "fiscal decision" is unacceptable.

    Supporters of the death penalty support it because they think it is integral to Justice. The only argument that will convince is one that separates the death penalty from Justice. And, just like nobody (regardless of political ideology) would agree to sacrifice Justice for "fiscal sense" with regard to the defense of high incidence recidivists, nobody will be convinced as it relates to the death penalty.

    Cory, you can only be credible on the issue if you use arguments that are consistent with your general philosophy or you point out why this is an exception. Using an argument you usually reject (or are perceived to reject by conservatives) for yourself won't fly with conservatives. I fear it might bow their backs.

    That said, I appreciate your opposition to the death penalty. A government that can kill its citizens is too strong. :)

  5. Craig 2015.02.02

    Costs aside, there is the fact that studies have shown having a death penalty doesn't serve as any form of deterrent, as well as the fact states without it reduce their risk of putting an innocent man or woman to death by 100%.

    Some say it never happens, but they aren't being honest with themselves. The Innocence Project has used DNA evidence to overturn convictions of over 325 people - some of which were sitting on death row just awaiting the day they were put to death - so let's not pretent we haven't executed innocent people for crimes they did not commit. There have been additional cases overturned that didn't even rely upon DNA, and it is worth noting that nobody fights to overturn convictions of those who have already been put to death, so chances are once an innocent person is put to death we will never learn about their true innocence.

    The idea of even one innocent person being put to death eliminates any basis for capital punishment being a form of "justice".

    As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere".

  6. Bill Fleming 2015.02.02

    Here are the national stats, if there are more recent ones or some specific to SD, I haven't seen them.

    I can relate from personal experience that this is not a partisan issue. I've had as many debates with Dems as I have Repubs about this. (I oppose the death penalty.)

    I'm curious as to why this is a State issue. It always puzzles me when human rights issues like this that potentially apply to all Americans are left to the states to decide the value, rights, and disposition of its citizens. Why should a prisoner's life be more disposable in one state than in another? Where are the equal rights in that equation?

    I'm all for eliminating the death penalty in SD, but it makes more sense to me to abolish it nationally, so we know where we stand with one another across the nation.

    Suppose we can count on our national delegation to bring this forward in the US Congress? If not, why not? Why couldn't South Dakota take a leadership role on this?

  7. Alan Fenner 2015.02.02

    I would rather have a thousand serving "life without parole" than have the state kill an innocent person.

  8. Troy 2015.02.02


    I don't think the death penalty just. Yes, there are some who support it from a vengeance/blood thirst perspective but their minds won't be changed no matter what is said.

    However, I believe the preponderance of supporters are of that position based on a perception it is just. The goal is to change their mind.

    Regarding the latter, that effort is largely a result of issues you raised. If you want them to step back, do nothing this year, and study it more, advocate it. Making laws which provide the right balance is always hard, never a perfect art. Sometimes we wait for "perfect" before doing something, sometimes we act too rashly, and sometimes we get it right, whatever that is.

    But, with the death penalty, I think this is an issue that will only be passed when we have extensive dialogue among the body politic such that a change is ripe. After too many defeats, the political argument becomes "been there, done that. Move on." Patient diligence can produce results. And, in politics, timing is everything.

  9. larry kurtz 2015.02.02

    Twenty bucks says someone in Troy's political party will propose death by firing squad to counter the bipartisan bill to end capital punishment.

  10. Bill Fleming 2015.02.02

    Troy writes: "A government that can kill its citizens is too strong." To that I'll add (in keeping with my position that this should also be a national issue) ”A state government that can kill another state's citizens is also too strong." My position, in essence, is that human rights issues transcend state boundaries.

  11. David Newquist 2015.02.02

    The jihadist wing of the Republican will more likely propose beheading, Larrry.

  12. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.02.02

    Troy: is not a bill like this an excellent opportunity to invite that statewide conversation? Couldn't legislators show some leadership, vote for this bill, and then head to the crackerbarrels to defend their vote?

  13. Bill Fleming 2015.02.02

    18 states plus the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty. How then can those states tolerate the execution of their citizens in another state? Grudgingly, I presume. ;-)

  14. larry kurtz 2015.02.02

    Exactly, David.

  15. WayneF 2015.02.02

    Google the nations where capital punishment is used. The United States is not in good company.

    State sponsored killing of criminals is a barbaric rite that should have ceased in the Middle Ages.

  16. Troy 2015.02.02


    Yes, it can be a stimulus to discussion. And, I welcome that. In this case, I lament that some basic groundwork with regard to coalitions wasn't done.

    Senator Jeremiah Denton once remarked in a room where it was proposed that he take a tough political vote, "What is my air cover?" The point was: What are you going to do to help me survive if I do this.? And, if you have none, why should I expose myself to harms way?

    In short, there is no evidence the proponents did the prep work to provide meaningful "air cover."

  17. mike from iowa 2015.02.02

    If memory serves,wingnuts wanted to even up the costs of death penalty v life imprisonment by limiting death sentence appeals to one within 30 days of sentencing. If exculpatory evidence showed up on day 31 or later,including videos with another perp-,you were SOL wingnut style.

  18. Nick Nemec 2015.02.02

    Troy, what would provide the necessary "air cover?"

  19. mike from iowa 2015.02.02

    Be very careful what you wish for,Bill F. Wingnuts on the national level have the votes to extend the death penalty to minority minors of most any age. Depends on how christlike they may feel on any given day. And no,it wouldn't surprise me in the least.

  20. larry kurtz 2015.02.02

    Air cover might be noting that i can find nothing in the SDDP issues and resolutions that Rep. Hickey would find disagreeable.

  21. larry kurtz 2015.02.02

    Steve: if Ann Tornberg can be a Democrat and feels strongly that certain medical procedures should be prohibited why can't you?

  22. Troy 2015.02.02


    Political capital is valuable, limited and shows up in many ways. What groups are behind this, what of their capital are they going to spend both in lobbying and/or voter education/mobilization, etc.?

    Asking any elected official to take political risk is hard. Doing so without providing cover to mitigate the risk is foolish.

  23. larry kurtz 2015.02.02

    Yeah, Nick: Troy's gander can screw your goose and have it stuffed up your colon.

  24. Les 2015.02.02

    It is closer to 4 times the cost to execute based upon a forty year cost vs execution.

    If as a meth babysitter, you burn our nieces 5 year old and her 4 year old buddy to death you get 10-15 years. If you would have violently killed her you may get the DP. We lost her either way.

    With the DP, instead of forgetting about you in prison, we live every day for years with you in the news and most possibly being subjected to continuous opportunities to testify and relive the horrors again and again.

    There is no healing or deterrent in the DP. I do not support the DP and would write that statement.

  25. Nick Nemec 2015.02.02

    Troy, maybe my reading comprehension isn't that good, are you saying outside groups need to be recruited to throw their weight behind the effort and thereby provide the necessary cover to those legislators who aren't necessarily profiles in courage?

    As a well connected, influential member of the Catholic Church would you be willing to lobby the Church to throw their weight behind the effort? Would a large scale effort by the Church even be of any use? If not the Church who would you suggest?

  26. larry kurtz 2015.02.02

    It reads like Troy thinks Rep. Hickey didn't kiss the right assets and sold his soul to the devil Hunhoff.

  27. Troy 2015.02.02

    Nick and Larry,

    I intended to say neither. And, what I'm trying to say is hard to put in writing.

    I don't like the word courage because it has implications I don't think is right. A person who votes against orthodoxy but how I like is courageous. If it is contrary to how I think he is a traitor. Perspective/agreement determines the word used.

    I like to think of it in terms of political capital. Every elected person only has so much of it to spend. Spend a little bit on everything or spend everything on one issue? The challenge is to get people to spend it on the death penalty. And, I think it rational to select causes where my expenditure is leveraged. If I spend everything on one issue (be courageous) but nobody is with me, I'm just broke and nothing changes. But, if I have an army of fellow "investors," change can occur.

    You mention the Catholic Church. A known opponent willing to speak out on this issue and always been there. Same with some mainline Protestant denominations.

    That said, who is new to the game since we are asking for a switch from current policy ("new cover"). Evangelical churches? Prominent names in law enforcement? People involved in victim's rights? Former Judges? An old political sage who formerly changed his mind (to some degree Hickey fits the bill but he isn't old). These are who stimulate a fresh look at the issue which is what I think changes minds because they give a different perspective than Presentation nuns (I don't mean that disrespectfully as I love them).

    Most importantly, these people needed to be talking about it all summer and fall. As far as I know, this wasn't talked about broadly.

  28. bearcreekbat 2015.02.02

    mike from iowa, even if you are correct that "Wingnuts on the national level have the votes to extend the death penalty to minority minors of most any age," the wingnuts will still lose under current law. In 2005 the SCOTUS ruled in Roper v. Simmons that the 8th amendment prohibits executing juveniles who commit capital crimes.

  29. bearcreekbat 2015.02.02

    Both support for and opposition to the death sentence reflect attitudes about the nature of death that might be worth exploring. Some folks, including most Christians, believe that death is a transformation into an eternal heavenly world where the deceased will live with God experiencing only eternal joy and happiness. It seems a real puzzle why people who believe this would seek revenge against those who kill. Indeed under such a world view doesn't the killer actually do the demised a favor by speeding the journey to eternal bliss? Likewise, doesn't the state do the killer with such beliefs the same favor by speeding the killer's trip to heaven?

    On the other hand, those who don't buy into the heaven concept know that we all will die eventually. So what is the hurry to execute those folks who kill others? They are just as doomed as the rest of us.

    For an eye opening and interesting analysis of the nature of death itself, but with no discussion of the death penalty, I recommend Professor Shelly Kagan's free online Yale philosophy course on death:

    For those who take the course, enjoy!

  30. mike from iowa 2015.02.02

    bcb-oh ye of little faith. Georgia recently executed a mentally disabled man,although the Scotus told them to quit that.

  31. Troy 2015.02.02


    If you ever are in Sioux Falls, I'll buy you lunch or coffee and "solve" the puzzle for you and answer your questions at least from my faith's perspective (which as far as I know is not very different, if at all, from most Christian faiths). BTW, I don't know how my Church's view on the DP reflects attitudes about death but do know how it reflects attitudes about life. Another topic.

  32. Roger Cornelius 2015.02.02

    If not now, why not? And the inevitable when?

    Our country fought the most vicious war in our history because we could decide when to end slavery.

    The fight was continued when blacks and minorities fought Jim Crow and again the establishment position was not now.

    Just when was the time for blacks to be able sit in the front of the bus, vote, attend a white college, etc.

    No, you don't sit back and wait for the "right time", because we don't if that time will ever come without continued advocacy.

    When their are questionable laws that may claim the lives of innocent people and cost the counties and states, and federal government millions of dollars, the time is NOW!

  33. Bill Fleming 2015.02.02

    BCB, nice to see you back on Madville. Welcome home. Happy to see you didn't perish on the Jamaican hills , darting about with your blissed-out cab drivers. :-)

    To be sure, regardless whether heaven, nirvana or whatever awaits you after your earthly demise, you would be missed here among those of us who noted and regretted your absence, even for just a week or so.

    Glad to learn you spent a brief time in "paradise" as opposed to just having your internet shut down for awhile.

    Changed my headspace about your absence from bummer to bomber.

    A contact high of sorts, I suppose. ;-)

  34. lesliengland 2015.02.02

    way to go, les

  35. lesliengland 2015.02.02

    I understand a cop's shooting to kill, as opposed to wounding but we must come up with safeguards and alternatives to ever pulling the trigger, that protect everyone.

    a government kill of its citizen, and any other, is a government kill. stand your ground, self defense, death penalty and perhaps abortion, are aspects of the same morality.

  36. Steve Hickey 2015.02.02

    Lots of minds changed on this issue in the last 18 months. Hard to do too much with this crop of legislators before November when we didn't know who would be elected.

    Troy, I've emailed you specific stuff in the past couple years on this issue and you don't reply back other than provide some support on the blogs. Maybe you are doing something behind the scene. If there are people who need to be brought in as support, go after them. We have the support of the Catholic lobby, defense lawyers, and some other church or justice groups. In the off season we've talked to judges who support us, former AGs, and others.

  37. Les 2015.02.02

    I'm onboard with you, Rep Hickey. I will start poking away at the West River Diocese. For questions, is there a body who could take calls at least during business hours?

  38. bearcreekbat 2015.02.02

    Thanks Bill!

    Sounds good Troy. I would be interested in your perspectives on the death questions.

  39. Steve Hickey 2015.02.02

    My cell is 3215430 and I'll take calls there on the death penalty issue. It's the number that is published on the state website.

  40. tara volesky 2015.02.02

    Yes Pastor, you are doing the right thing for coming out against the death penalty. Hate should not overtake life imprisonment.

  41. Denny Davis 2015.02.02

    The cost of death cases is paid for by the counties. The smaller counties do get some state aid after a certain amount but the larger counties pay the full bill. At a time when the counties need to fix their roads and bridges, wouldn't it make sense to stop million dollar death cases and put the money toward fixing what's broken?
    Life in prison in SD is about $22,000 a year. Much less money then 20 years of appeals.
    When we kill someone who kills, what does that teach our children? We are better then that!

  42. Lanny V Stricherz 2015.02.02

    All of a sudden, we are talking about justice as the reason for supporting the death penalty, when for years it has been as a deterrent for those who would commit murder. I wonder if the fact that there have now, including the one that turned into murder here in Sioux Falls, 8 murders in Sioux Falls in the past twelve months, including 6 women. The deterrent factor is not longer viable, just as the justice one now being promulgated does not hold water. "Justice and vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord."

  43. CLCJM 2015.02.02

    Glad this is being discussed. Don't believe the death penalty deters crime,serves justice or saves money. It's only purpose is revenge and as Lanny said, that belongs to God. Sentences should be about reducing crime and most sentences should be about rehabilitation. Where that may not be possible then we do need to keep those offenders locked up. But I doubt there is any real evidence that the death penalty is more affective than life in prison.

  44. leslie 2015.02.02

    clcjm-i do believe you have encapsulated a new, complete criminal justice philosophy in about 3 short sentences!

  45. Lanny V Stricherz 2015.02.03

    Troy, I just read a couple of your comments suggesting that nothing had been done to recruit new voices to this discussion. That, sir is far from the truth. Deacon Denny Davis, spoke widely in the Catholic diocese and in other venues in the time between the 2013 and 2014 legislative sessions. People come slowly to an issue, and sometimes have a hard time changing their opinion on something, at least I know I wrestled with my decision to change my mind on the death penalty several years ago.

    But to suggest that nothing was done to recruit more folks to the pro life side of this discussion is wrong. As the old adage goes, "You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink."

  46. JOE WADE 2015.02.09

    Hey SCUM BAG ABOUREZK, Yes we are still walking around, even with your continued attempts to give us dirt naps .... as said before get the hell out of our camp!!!

    Abourezk’s Tin Soldiers – Creating 1st Nations Hate Machines

    "For example, Since the 70’s Abourezk has advocated support for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) , Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) and developed many working relationships with terrorist icons in the Arab states, the Ukraine, Cuba , etc …. , he was the 1st u.s diplomat to enter negations with Islamic icons since after the days of the 6day Arab/Israel war in support of terrorist groups.

    In the 70’s Abourezk with his working groups advocated for a terrorist held in Israel to be released, resulting in that person being flown to Jim Jones of the people’s temple, Jim Jones during those days also held working relationships with Dennis Banks and AIM.

    It was during these days Abourezk started categorizing Palestine people as “indigenous” in order to garnish support for islamic terrorist icons from 1st Nations people on this continent, to this day Abourezk and working groups continue to promote those of Islamic Ideologies and worldviews as “indigenous people”.

    Where is Syrian James Abourezk today in all this mess? , Sitting next to Obama and Valarie Jarret as an adviser for foreign policy, along with Bill Ayres, Ward Churchill working groups, in support to the recreate a Islamic Caliphate (ISIS), while the media and Obama’s gov. handlers push to change the ideology of americans by classifying current islamic attackers in our country today as “mental illness” …..

    this country is full of basket cases that actually buy into their b.s script of social manipulation chaos."

  47. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.02.09

    Well, "Joe", what fun to have sensationalist fabricators come spam our discussion of real issues with evidenceless link bait to their own tinfoil hat sites. You're completely off-topic, but I guess you're worth addressing, not because you're speaking truth (anyone still claiming Barack Obama is a Kenyan and not eligible to be President is a waste of intellectual space), and not because you present profound evidence (not one link, not one hyperlink, not one verifiable claim in the entire screed you link in your second comment), but because you commit libel and make a direct physical threat against our former Senator:

    "So , James Abourezk, you and I have a date with Destiny, you Obama and Ayres along with Ward Churchill have know for years this day was on the horizon.

    If you ever watched the “Girl with the Dragon Tatoo” , you know what she did to her abuser. And, the serial murders of Women using the scripture to orchestrate their mutilations and rapes from father to son, including the regular rape of daughter and sister ["Joe Wade," "July 20 2014 – CheckMate: A Date with Destiny, James Abourezks Date with LBW ….!" Influenced to Death, 2014.07.28].

    I really don't have time for that kind of filth and violence. I don't plan to engage you on your "issues." I only plan to direct your comments in this vein to law enforcement. You might want to direct your comments to mental health professionals. Please confirm that you are using your real name and tell us where you're based so we know where to send the paddy wagon.

  48. bearcreekbat 2015.02.09

    Cory, thanks for your reply to Joe Wade's incredibly stupid and bizarre comment. He needs serious mental health counseling.

    Whether or not you agree with Jim Abourezk's position on any issue, he is one of the finest and most honorable men I have ever known.

  49. CLCJM 2015.02.09

    Thanks, Cory and BCB for your response to Joe Wade's hysterical, vicious, bigoted and clearly insane rant against Jim Abourezk. Such unfounded attacks have no place in rational discussion!

  50. Roger Cornelius 2015.02.09

    Thanks for directing Joe Wade's violent commentary to the proper law enforcement authorities, this threat seems real.

    I have long considered Senator Abourezk and Dennis Banks among my friends, haven't seen either for awhile now, but they are friends and I would hate to see anything happen to them.

  51. leslie 2015.02.09

    cory, thx for directing sibby's comment, wait, does his mom know he's here?

  52. bearcreekbat 2015.02.09

    Lanny, thanks but no thanks.

  53. Les 2015.02.10

    Wasn't it Sen Abourezk who said he had to leave DC. No honest man could affect change?

Comments are closed.