Justices uphold convictions in I-90 beating of S.D. trooper

Capitol News Bureau

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The South Dakota Supreme Court Thursday upheld the convictions of a former semi-pro football player who beat a state Highway Patrol trooper during a road-side stop four years ago.

The justices unanimously ruled against Donald Willingham. He attacked Trooper Zac Bader and repeatedly punched Bader while on the ground during a 2015 traffic stop on Interstate 90 east of Rapid City.

A Pennington County jury found Willingham guilty of first-degree attempted murder, aggravated assault against a law enforcement officer, possession of marijuana, intent to distribute marijuana and commission of a felony with a firearm.

Circuit Judge Wally Eklund sentenced the six-foot, 270-pound Willingham to 45 years in the state penitentiary, imposed fines and ordered restitution of $146,277.

Willingham, who was a passenger in the Suburban, and three others fled, leaving the Highway Patrol trooper barely conscious along the road.

They then buried about fifty pounds of marijuana and a large-caliber handgun in a pasture and went to get a room to hide at a Wall motel, where a Pennington County deputy sheriff and two U.S. Forest Service officers arrested them.

Chase Sestak, who was driving when Bader stopped the vehicle, took a photo on his cell phone of the spot where they stashed the drugs and gun, so they could find them later. Law enforcement officers used the photo to locate the drugs and gun.

Found inside their vehicle at the motel was $30,000 of cash.

Willingham claimed in his appeal that the evidence shouldn’t have been allowed at his trial, in part because Trooper Bader unnecessarily extended the time of the vehicle stop along I-90 beyond what was needed to issue a warning ticket for speeding.

Justice Janine Kern wrote in the opinion released Thursday that Willingham’s attorney didn’t make that argument to Judge Eklund and therefore the Supreme Court wouldn’t consider it.

Willingham also argued that his own statements to law enforcement officers after his arrest were made under the influence of drugs and that he was inadequately warned of his Miranda right against making voluntary statements that could incriminate him.

Justice Kern responded: “The officers scrupulously honored his right to stop questioning after the first interview. Based on our review of the circumstances surrounding the second interview we conclude Willingham’s rights were not violated.”

Willingham also contended that Judge Eklund wrongly refused to allow lesser offenses that Willingham’s attorney sought. “The circuit court did not err in refusing to give Willingham’s proposed lesser included offense instructions,” Kern wrote.

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