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Advocates of Scaling Back Death Penalty in SD Vow to Continue

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South Dakota is one of 25 states that still allow the death penalty. (Adobe Stock)
South Dakota is one of 25 states that still allow the death penalty. (Adobe Stock)
 By Mike Moen, Public News Service - SD - Producer, Contact
February 9, 2021

PIERRE, S.D. -- The South Dakota Senate has rejected a measure that would have limited the scope of the death penalty.

Supporters felt the latest version would have appealed to most lawmakers, but opponents raised longstanding arguments about seeking justice for victims.

The measure, which cleared a Senate committee last week, would have only allowed South Dakota prosecutors to pursue the death penalty in cases where the victim was a law-enforcement officer or firefighter.

Denny Davis, director of the group South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said capital punishment should be abolished altogether. But he felt the effort was a step in the right direction, even though it suffered the same fate as previous bills.

"This issue needs to be seen, it needs to be dealt with, it needs to be debated," Davis urged.

Davis questioned how a largely "pro-life" state could be OK with taking another human's life.

But opponents countered they want to protect others from harm if a convicted killer goes free someday, while adding those who have committed the most violent crimes have to answer for them.

Davis argued life in prison without parole is already a death sentence, and vowed to keep working with bill sponsors on reforms.

Sen. Arthur Rusch, R-Yankton, the bill's sponsor and a former judge, cited the emotional toll he felt from a death-penalty case.

Others contended it causes psychological pain for jurors, and is a drain on taxpayers because of lengthy appeals.

John Fitzgerald, Lawrence County State's Attorney, testified South Dakota has a strong and fair system.

"It's never automatic," Fitzgerald pointed out. "No matter how outrageous the murder is, and it's infrequently applied in our state."

South Dakota has administered 20 executions throughout state history, with the latest in 2019. It's had four others since 2007, but none before that going back to the late 1970s, when capital punishment was reinstated.

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