SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — If you kill someone in South Dakota, even if you didn’t intend to do it, you can go to prison for life. South Dakota is one of three states (South Dakota, Oklahoma, Washington) that allow a life sentence for first-degree manslaughter.
First-degree manslaughter is a reckless killing, and these cases are often plea-bargained down from second-degree murder, which carries a life sentence. Only in manslaughter cases, judges have complete discretion over what kind of sentence they hand down.
And that has some people, including a retired judge turned lawmaker calling for change to sentencing guidelines in South Dakota. Our KELOLAND News Investigation looks into some of South Dakota’s high-profile manslaughter cases and the wide variety of sentences perpetrators receive, revealing that it can even happen in the same case by the same judge.
“He was a mama’s boy. I was a single mom. He just was a mama’s boy. We did everything together,” Stonehouse said.
Susie Stonehouse’s son Riley was killed in August of 2017.
“He was hanging around a kid he shouldn’t have been hanging around with. They said most likely he didn’t even know Dylan Holler that shot and killed him,” Stonehouse said.
While toxicology reports showed Riley wasn’t using drugs, he was there when a drug deal went bad and Holler had a gun.
Stonehouse: My son is getting himself out of the car. The gun goes off when he pistol whips Jayden Eastman and hits my son in the back left side. He gets himself out, he falls by the tree and he has 30 seconds to a minute to live.
Kennecke: Dylan Holler did not intend to kill Riley?
Stonehouse: I’m not saying he did. But he knew that someone was going to get hurt that day. It was loaded. He knew what he was doing. He knew what he was doing.
Holler pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter in Riley’s death and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
“How do you even put a number on a life, a young life he took, and your son on top of it. And it was so senseless. It was so senseless,” Stonehouse said.
Stonehouse’s personal tragedy has made her much more aware of how much sentences for manslaughters can vary.
“You hear of cases like Riley’s. Some people might have gotten 15 years, and yet in other cases some people get 100 years. They get a bigger sentence. I don’t understand,” Stonehouse said.
“The difference between first-degree manslaughter and second-degree murder in South Dakota is very narrow. When second-degree murder is an automatic life sentence, it makes sense that a manslaughter at its worst instance should be a life sentence. And I’ve had manslaughters that got less than a year in prison,” Mark Vargo said.
Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo has prosecuted many manslaughter cases, both in the federal and state systems.
In 1994 he offered Joaquin Ramos a plea deal in the shooting death of his pregnant girlfriend, Debbie Martines. Ramos plead guilty to first-degree manslaughter and received a sentence of life without parole, which was later commuted to 150 years.
“I can tell you right out that if Jack Ramos wouldn’t have been subject to the potential of a life sentence, I wouldn’t have made him a manslaughter offer, Vargo said.
Ramo’s uncle, Angelo Cruz, has been fighting for criminal justice reform in South Dakota for years.
“In every case someone has died. And to give one man zero time and another life without parole is very extreme and that has to be modified to the point where they are at least closer to one another, rather than one man walks away after killing someone and another man doesn’t. And I believe that is what is so unfair, Cruz said.
South Dakota currently has 129 people in prison serving sentences for first-degree manslaughter… nearly 30 percent of those are basically in for life. 21 manslaughter convicts are serving life without parole. Another 15 inmates are serving 80 years or more. The lowest sentence for someone now in for manslaughter is 11.5 years.
But others guilty of first-degree manslaughter have received much less than that. Take the case of Douglas Scholten. Scholten is one of four young men, all under the age of 21, charged with the same crime in the shooting death of Jordan LeBeau in 2013. The men conspired to perform a “rip” and rob LeBeau of $100,000 in cash they believed was stashed away in shoeboxes in his closet.
“They all plead down to manslaughter,” Anne Rice said.
Kevin Rice’s mother, Anne, will never forget the day her son and Doug Scholten came back to her home acting strangely and the cops showed up at her door. Kevin admitted he’d been party to a crime.
“And I said, ‘what is the crime?’ He goes, ‘the boy who got killed on the TV, they used that gun.’ I just was beside myself, ‘Oh my God,’ I said, ‘Kevin you’re going to have to get a lawyer. I’m done with this. What is going on here'”?
Judge Bradley Zell sentenced Scholten to 30 years, but suspended his time, meaning Scholten didn’t have to go to prison.
The other defendants in the case, Trevor Kruthoff, who pulled the trigger, got 40 years. Brian Anderson got 50 years.
“I never thought the situation would get out of control like it did, or I would have never partaken in any of this,” Rice said at his sentencing in 2015.
However, Rice, who prosecutors said organized the crime, got the highest sentence at 60 years.
“And even though you’re not the one who pulled the trigger you are the one that placed the gun in those two young guys’ hands,” Zell said in 2015 at Rice’s hearing.
Rice: Judge Zell gave him as harsh a sentence, he kept saying in the courtroom–you could have stopped it. Well all four of them could have stopped it. That gun went through five hands before it went off. I was just shocked. I was literally shell-shocked. I was like, am I hearing what I’m hearing here?
Kennecke: Why do you think he got the most out of everybody?
Rice: I don’t know. I don’t know. Had we had more sentencing guidelines or something. These judges can’t act like God one day–Doug you’re okay, but Kevin–we’ll just throw the other three away for a long period of time. It illustrates that we need sentencing, criminal justice reform in this state.
“Manslaughter is negligent, reckless, doesn’t require an intent to kill somebody; whereas murder requires that intent. And yet the punishment is exactly the same,” Sen. Rusch said.
Retired Judge and current State Senator, Art Rusch, has been working to reform South Dakota’s manslaughter’s sentences, but has only been met with resistance.
“The prosecutors are opposed to it because they’re opposed to anything that potentially reduces a sentence,” Rusch said.
“So a judge has very full discretion. I think as a state we have done extremely well appointing judges to the bench who try to use that discretion well. I think judges try to follow the law and try to make sure the punishment fits the crime,” Vargo said.
Meanwhile, Rice has been frustrated by the lack of willingness by lawmakers to take another look at the issue.
“Honestly, if it’s not corn or horns, it doesn’t get addressed well in Pierre, Rice said.
But that doesn’t mean she will give up lobbying for change.
“I will be there until the day I die,” Rice said.
Rusch says he will bring the issue back before the legislature this year. While Douglas Scholten did not receive prison time in the LeBeau case, he was ordered to perform 500 hours of community service a year for a decade, pay $70,000 in restitution and fund a $10,000 scholarship in LeBeau’s name. We checked with the South Dakota judicial system and found that Scholten is up to date on his community service hours and at the LeBeau family’s request, donated $10,000 in LeBeau’s name to the McCrossen Boy’s Ranch, rather than fund a scholarship. He still owes more than $54,000 in restitution.