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South Dakota AG Ravnsborg, who allegedly fatally struck man with car, escapes felony charges

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South Dakota’s top law enforcement official avoided felony charges for allegedly striking and killing a man with his car over the summer, when he initially said he believed he had hit an animal, such as a deer, officials recently announced.

South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg was charged Thursday with three misdemeanors and could face up to 30 days in jail and up to a $500 fine on each charge: careless driving, driving out of his lane and operating a motor vehicle while on his phone.

Ravnsborg said he was grateful that the legal system assumes his innocence, while relatives of the man killed in the collision, 55-year-old Joseph Boever, said they were disappointed but not surprised that the attorney general was only facing misdemeanor charges.

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Hyde County Deputy State’s Attorney Emily Sovell said the evidence simply didn’t support felony charges of vehicular homicide or manslaughter, which could have meant years of prison time. She noted Ravnsborg wasn’t intoxicated and that a manslaughter charge would have required the state to show he “consciously and unjustifiably” disregarded a substantial risk.

Jason Ravnsborg, South Dakota attorney general, speaks during a news conference outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019. ( Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Jason Ravnsborg, South Dakota attorney general, speaks during a news conference outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019. ( Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“At best, his conduct was negligent, which is insufficient to bring criminal charges in South Dakota,” said Beadle County State’s Attorney Michael Moore, who helped handle the case.

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Secretary of Public Safety Craig Price, who led the crash investigation, has said Ravnsborg was distracted before he drove onto the shoulder of a darkened stretch of highway but has not provided additional details. Boever was walking on the side of the road and displaying some type of light when Ravnsborg’s 2011 Ford Taurus hit him, according to Price.

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Ravnsborg released a statement shortly after the crash saying his vehicle “struck something that I believed to be a large animal (likely a deer).”

Ravnsborg said he called 911 and used the flashlight on his cellphone to survey a ditch near the area “but couldn’t see anything.”

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“I looked around the vehicle in the dark and saw nothing to indicate what I had hit,” he said in the statement. “All I could see were pieces of my vehicle laying on and around the roadway.”

When Sheriff Mike Volek arrived, he, too, “surveyed the damage” to the crime scene and to Ravnsborg’s vehicle, the state AG said.

“At no time did either of us suspect that I had been involved in an accident with a person,” his statement continued. Ravnsborg, whose car was too damaged to drive, borrowed Volek’s personal vehicle to get home, he said.

Ravnsborg described how he and his chief of staff were driving to return Volek’s vehicle the morning after the scene when they stopped at the accident scene.

“As I walked along the shoulder of the road I discovered the body of Mr. Boever in the grass just off the roadway,” he wrote. “[I]t was apparent that Mr. Boever was deceased.”

Boever’s family had questioned Ravnsborg’s account and expressed frustration as five months passed while they waited for a charging decision.

COUSIN OF SOUTH DAKOTA MAN KILLED IN CRASH INVOLVING STATE AG SEEKING ANSWERS, JUSTICE

Victor Nemec, left, and Nick Nemec pose outside Nick Nemec's home in Holabird, S.D., Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Stephen Groves)

Victor Nemec, left, and Nick Nemec pose outside Nick Nemec’s home in Holabird, S.D., Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Stephen Groves)

Nick Nemec, Boever’s cousin, said Thursday he was “disappointed, but not surprised” at the charges. He called South Dakota’s manslaughter law “weak” and said he expected his family to take civil action against Ravnsborg.

“I was afraid the charge would be something on the order of crossing the white line,” Nemec said. “And that’s exactly what the charge was.”

Ravnsborg said in a statement, “I appreciate, more than ever, that the presumption of innocence placed within our legal system continues to work.”

He added that he could not imagine the “pain and loss” of Boever’s family.

Moore, the state’s attorney, said the misdemeanor charges were the “right decision” but that he didn’t feel good about it.

“Obviously when a person dies, we want to know what happened. But we’re limited by the investigation and by the facts,” he said. “And we can’t compel someone to tell us. I mean, there’s just nowhere else to go.”

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Despite the charge accusing Ravnsborg of being on his cellphone, he was not actually on his device at the time of the crash, authorities said. They said phone records showed he had been using his phone about one minute before.

Prosecutors determined from cellphone records that Ravnsborg walked by Boever’s body while he walked the crash scene with his cellphone flashlight. But Sovell noted that it was a “very dark night” with no lighting on the road and that there was no evidence that either Ravnsborg or the sheriff who responded to the crash saw Boever’s body.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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