A bill introduced in the South Dakota Senate would change who can be sentenced to die for a crime.
Senate Bill 98 would, in essence, limit the death penalty only to those directly involved in the taking of a life of a first responder or law enforcement officer.
“I am the first legislator in the history of the state of South Dakota who has personally sentenced a man to death,” said Arthur Rusch.
For 18 years, state Senator Arthur Rusch of Vermillion was referred to as Judge Arthur Rusch. He presided over the 14 counties of the first judicial district in South Dakota.
It was Rusch who looked at Donald Moeller and told him he would die by lethal injection.
Rusch says that experience impacts him to this day. He says it’s also hard on jury members. Instead of a complete repeal, this bill leaves the state’s death penalty intact for those who killed a law enforcement officer, corrections officer or firefighter. There are many in the legislature who believe the death penalty is a deterrent, Rusch says his experience as a judge tells him otherwise. He points to the case of George Sitts who was convicted of killing two law enforcement officers in 1949.
“On the way to the death chamber, they had an electric chair then, he said this is the first time the cops have helped me escape from prison, meaning that many of these people in that situation, they think death is preferable to sitting in prison for the rest of their life, and I’m not sure the state should be accommodating them that way,” Rusch said.
Past bills that would limit the death penalty didn’t make it very far. Senator Troy Heinert signed on to co-sponsor the bill.
“In years past some of the opposition have been from families of victims of people who have been given the death penalty, and I surely understand their concerns,” said Heinert.
Heinert says he’s not sure how much opposition they will see in the legislature.
Meanwhile Rusch, the former judge and prosecutor says he will continue to try to convince others to see the death penalty from his perspective.
“During all those years as a prosecutor I would have said the death penalty doesn’t bother me, but once you are really looking it in the face, you really have to question whether that’s the way we ought to be going.”
The bill would also limit the death penalty to the perpetrator of the killing and not an accomplice.
Since 2007, five people have been executed by lethal injection in South Dakota. Right now Briley Piper is the only person on death row. He helped two others torture and kill Chester Allan Poage of Spearfish 20 years ago.