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Death on the docket

The South Dakota Supreme Court makes its annual trip to the USD Law School March 22-24 for oral arguments. It’s always a fun place to argue because the courtroom is packed and with all the students there the justices seem to be a bit more active. The Court also tries to pick “interesting” cases because it’s at law school. This time around, though, they may be taking the concept to a bit of an extreme with appeals involving three of the four individuals on death row in South Dakota.

The very first argument is in the Donald Moeller case. Moeller was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1980 rape and murder of a young girl in Sioux Falls. The conviction was reversed but a conviction on retrial was affirmed. This is is habeas proceeding raising some evidentiary issues as well as some issues dealing with the statutory scheme for the death penalty.

Then, two days later the day is devoted entirely to the Briley Piper and Elijah Page. These are particularly “interesting” because the defendants got the death penalty after pleading guilty to a beating death in the Black Hills, even though a co-defendant got a life sentence when he went to trial on the same charges. Because they are the initial direct appeals, these cases present more straightforward constitutional challenges, including issues such as proportionality, cruel and unusual punishment and selective application of capital sentencing procedures.

Mixed between these is the issue of whether then-Governor Janklow could seal pardons he granted so the public (i.e., the press) couldn’t find out who was pardoned. A trial court concluded the state constitution grants the governor the power to do so. This is one of those cases where the media is banging the drum, so it may get more column inches than the death penalty cases, particularly since the Argus recently won a national award for its coverage. (As an aside, I’ll note that although the Argus ran a lengthy story on its award, I don’t recall it mentioning South Dakota Public Radio won the same award for electronic media for a documentary on the homeless in Rapid City).

For those with any particular interest, there is streaming audio of the oral arguments via the Court’s web site. The audio is then archived if you can’t listen at the time.

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