PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — A former South Dakota legislative candidate whose pre-sentencing investigation report said he had a self-diagnosed addiction to pornography has pleaded guilty to two counts of incest involving a family member.
Joel Koskan, 44, of Wood had been accused of sexual grooming behaviors. Court documents filed in November 2022 said there was “probable cause” that he committed rape, aggravated incest and sexual contact with a child under 16.
A criminal complaint filed in the case alleged that Koskan exposed a minor to a foreseeable harm from 2014 to 2020 in Mellette County.
Tuesday morning, Koskan pleaded guilty to two alternate charges of incest, a class-5 felony, for acts committed in April 2022 at the family’s home in Mellette County. He was a Republican candidate for a state Senate seat at the time.
The young victim, now age 20, sat in the front row on the prosecutor’s side in the main courtroom at the Hughes County Courthouse. She told the court, “It’s been going on too long, and it’s been very hard on me.” She paused and sighed. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m just here to tell the truth and I know it’s not my fault,” she continued. She said there had been concern about what her coming forward would do to his life. “What he did to me,” she said, “is going to stay with me for life, too.”
Koskan, dressed in a blue suit and lighter blue tie, stood and told the judge in a voice so soft it was nearly inaudible that he was “sorry for the pain and suffering” he had caused her.
Circuit Judge Margo Northrup sentenced Koskan to the maximum five years in the penitentiary for sexual penetration and the maximum five years in the penitentiary for fellatio and fined him $10,000 on each count.
Judge Northrup told the family member that she was the victim and that by coming forward she could now take the first step in the healing process.
“You deserve to be loved, cherished and respected by a family,” the judge told her.
The judge said that the pre-sentence report noted Koskan represented a “high” risk of further inappropriate sexual activity if he remained in the home and that he could re-build his family connections through treatment.
After placing him in handcuffs, law enforcement officers led Koskan from the courtroom as he was taken into immediate custody.
Brent Kempema, who directs the criminal litigation division in the South Dakota Attorney General’s Office, presented the case for the prosecution. Defense attorney Clint Sargent of Sioux Falls represented Koskan.
A previous plea agreement in the case included no prison time for Koskan; it was rejected by a judge in March 2023. That plea agreement also would have required Koskan to pay for the victim’s college, therapist and insurance through the age of 22 as well as having no contact with the victim.
Koskan, who ran for District 26 state Senate, lost his race in November 2022 just days after the charges were brought against him. He had previously run for the district’s Senate seat in 2020 and in 2018, losing both times.
Sargent told the court Tuesday that Koskan was there to take responsibility for his actions and hoped that the judge would let the healing process begin for his family.
Sargent said the family member had written a letter to the court saying she wanted the judge to accept the first plea agreement and didn’t want Koskan to spend time in prison. The defense attorney said Koskan was “a good candidate” for community service and for outpatient treatment.
The family member then spoke, saying the judge had gone to school and knows “what needs to be done.”
Kempema said Tuesday’s proceeding marked the conclusion of a young woman’s long struggle with dealing with sexual abuse. The state’s prosecutor said she had come forward in 2016 and an investigation began, but she “shut down” during a forensic interview and couldn’t continue.
According to Kempema, in May 2022 she contacted a friend whose father was a former state Division of Criminal Investigation agent. He said that her letter to the court had reflected her fear of breaking up the family and that she still felt care and love for her abuser.
That led to Koskan sending text messages to her urging her to not disclose what had been going on, according to Kempema, who said Koskan also reported that her vehicle had been stolen.
“From that point on for this young lady, the pressure was on,” Kempema said. Family members began trying to persuade her to relent, and she began shutting down again in what Kempema described as “panic attacks” similar to her behavior displayed earlier Tuesday in the courtroom.
“Through no fault of her own, she became almost unable to discuss the case,” Kempema said. But when Judge Northrup refused to accept the original plea agreement, which had called for Koskan to serve no time behind bars, that “clicked something within her” that it wasn’t up to her whether her abuser went to prison, according to Kempema.
She also “began to realize that the people she was trying to protect did not have her best interest at heart,” he said, noting that one began referring to her as “the victim” rather than by her name, and that a family member gave her an article about another legislative candidate who had rape charges against him dropped.
Kempema said Koskan had bet that she would stop cooperating.
“He gambled on this young woman folding, but she didn’t. He needs to pay, Judge,” Kempema said.
Judge Northrup reviewed the knowledge she had about Koskan: Born in Kansas, raised on a farm in the Wood area of Mellette County, now farms next to the farm of his father, John, home-schooled, with an associate degree from a community college, past school board member, never used alcohol or drugs, married for 21 years with five children in the family including three who were adopted.
But, the judge said, there was another side to Koskan, who had begun grooming the child at a young age, had an admitted addiction to porn, installed cameras in her bedroom and her college dorm room, tried to control her activities and acted like “a jealous, protective lover,” a man the judge said who could have been charged with more crimes.
Judge Northrup said Koskan had “shattered” the lives of the young woman, his wife and his family. His father, who served 16 years in the Legislature and was once a Republican nominee for the state Public Utilities Commission, sat with other family members in the back row on Koskan’s side of the courtroom.
The judge earlier sustained Sargent’s objection that letters sent by members of the public to the judge shouldn’t be part of the pre-sentence investigation report. “They should be in the trash,” Sargent said.
The judge said she had received many unsolicited ex parte communications from the public about the case. Kempema said he agreed with Sargent that they didn’t belong in the report. The judge agreed, but said she didn’t know where they belonged.
Judge Northrup noted that she had also received on Tuesday morning a letter from the defendant and additional information from law enforcement. She didn’t share what they said.
State Attorney General Marty Jackley wasn’t present for the pleas and sentencing. However, his office issued a statement afterward. “Justice has been served in this case because the victim overcame extraordinary conditions to cooperate with the prosecution,” Jackley said. “We applaud the victim for her courage and praise the difficult work of the investigators and prosecutors.”