Talking death threats, death penalty and school shootings as pace picks up in GOP governor's primary

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
Marty Jackley on the campaign trail

First, the death threat, and what Marty Jackley is doing about it. Then the death penalty, and how he and I disagree.

With a quick look along the way at the South Dakota gubernatorial race, and Kristi Noem’s sharp elbows, which are part of life in political campaigns.

Death threats can also be part of life for those in the public eye, and most times they're just empty threats. Still, considering what's at sake, you want to take them seriously.

So these days Jackley is seldom far from a handgun.

And a handgun.

And another handgun.

There are three handguns in the rotation the South Dakota Attorney General keeps for self protection, just in case the person who made the death threat actually meant it.

He keeps an old-school .357-caliber revolver in his office at the state criminal justice center on the north edge of Pierre, a Sig Sauer .40-caliber semi-automatic in his pickup and a Sig Sauer .380 semi-auto at home. He has a regular concealed weapons permit for the guns, along with law-enforcement authorization to carry them.

I’ve got no idea what kind of handgun shot he is. Hopefully, he won’t have to find out except on the practice range.

Jackley won’t talk about specifics of the particular death threat in this case, other than to say it is being taken seriously, by him and by other authorities.

“I’ve had a death threat related to being attorney general, but it’s an open investigation,” he said. “So beyond having a firearm in my vicinity and having DCI aware of my schedule and location, I’m continuing to do my job.”

He has two jobs these days, of course. He is South Dakota’s chief prosecutor. He is also a Republican candidate for governor. Both jobs require a fair amount of public exposure, which Jackley said the death threat won’t change, other than, of course, scheduling notice to the DCI and close proximity to a handgun, just in case.

 If there’s anything more going on, Jackley’s not talking about it. He is talking about his campaign. He’s talking plenty, in fact, by phone, by email, in person and through advertisements that have begun airing and running across South Dakota.

He’s not the only one, of course. Jackley’s main Republican rival, U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, is also doing some talking. As the top two Republicans in the race, they both have plenty to say as they enter the main primary campaign run leading to their election collision in June.

In fact, in a showing of what might be a feisty finish to the primary race, Noem has already challenged the accuracy of one assertion in the first Jackley campaign ad, that being that he created the South Dakota Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

Turns out he didn’t, actually. Except that he also did, sort of. The task force already existed when Jackley become attorney general in 2009. It was formed by the U.S. attorney in South Dakota in 2007. But that U.S. attorney happened to be, well, Marty Jackley.

Case closed? Not quite.

The task force actually existed even prior to 2007, but then it was an affiliate of a ICAC Task Force in Minnesota, and under control of that task force. As U.S. attorney, Jackley made the South Dakota task force a stand-alone, independent entity with more freedom of operation in 2007 .

Since the task force was formed, Jackley has been actively involved in its operation. I’ve seen some of that first hand as a reporter in dark-of-night ride-along work with Jackley and other law-enforcement personnel in sting operations during the Sturgis motorcycle rally. There they made cases against adults making online connections for sex with minors.

So who’s telling the truth about who started the ICAC task force? They both are, sort of. That’s the way it seems to work in political campaigns, where truth tends to be a “sort-of” proposition. We as journalists and we as voters then get to sort out the sort-ofs, as best we can.

After sorting this one, I tend to think the Noem campaign made a lot out of a little. But that, too, is part of campaigns. It can also be part of winning campaigns.

And more than just offering a glance at the typical fact bending and shape-shifting of your typical statewide political campaign, that public swing at Jackley by the Noem campaign was likely a sign of skirmishes to come in the next 2 1/2 months. Possibly pretty good skirmishes.

Based on what I know of Jackley, I expect him to be a little uncomfortable in such conflicts, at least at first. He’ll probably get comfortable, though. And based on what I know of Noem, I expect her to be very comfortable from the beginning.

Argus Leader newsman Jonathan Ellis put it pretty well in a conversation with public radio’s Lori Walsh Wednesday when he said the call-out by Noem’s campaign on the ICAC issue showed that the “Noem campaign is not afraid to throw a sharp elbow. And that’s not surprising at all. She has always been a tough campaigner…”

Tough, indeed. Pretty smart, too.

Like Ellis, I never saw Noem in action on a campaign when she won her two terms in the South Dakota House or Representatives. Although I did see her gritty side in a couple of committee debates and discussions. And I heard about her tough side from other legislators. As an assistant GOP leader in the state House, she won both friends and foes in her own caucus by the way she did her job.

I’ve watched her in state campaign mode since her late-starting, fast-moving campaign run for the state's lone U.S. House seat in 2010. First she beat the guy I thought had earned the right to his party’s nomination, former Secretary of state and current PUC Commissioner Chris Nelson, and state Rep. Blake Curd in the Republican primary.

In the general election that fall, she used a wave of conservative support -- in state and beyond -- a tough campaign message and plenty of money, as well as a failure of the fading Democratic Party in South Dakota,  to top incumbent Democrat Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, who once appeared almost invincible.

A Democratic friend said at the time, with what seemed like a nod of appreciation, that Noem showed a natural flair for retail campaigning as well as a “’taste for the jugular.” I doubt she has lost either since then. She recorded easy reelection victories in 2012, 2014 and 2016, with no likely loss on the horizon had she wanted to stay in the U.S. House.

After her 2010 win, I spent some time with Noem and her family at their farm home near Castlewood. Well, sometimes they call it a ranch. But I’m struggling to believe there are really any ranches in Hamlin County. Although it is located along the western flank of the Coteau des Prairies, a place of captivating vistas, some remaining natural prairie and farms with some pretty big pastures.

Whatever you call the Noem place,  I like it. And it’s where I’m scheduled to see the fourth-term congresswoman for an interview on a mid-April Saturday. I’ll be making a trip across West River ranch country and back on to Hamlin County for an extended story on Noem for this blog. And, as usual, I’ll chat up the blog piece on the radio with Lori Walsh on In the Moment.

Last year I took a much-shorter drive to the Norman Ranch north of Rapid City for a pretty extensive story with Norman son-in-law Jackley:

If you read it, be sure to hydrate and take sunscreen. The weather might change along the reading route.

Jackley and I did a lot of talking for that story. But then, he and I talk a lot, about a lot of things — in person, by email, by text, pretty much all year. When I have a thought or a question or a point to make, I’ll often share it with him. And he’ll usually respond, pretty quickly. Then I’ll respond. And we’ll go back and forth. That’s the relationship we have.

If he’s tired of it yet he hasn’t said so. At least, not to me. Although he has been less inclined to expound in recent days, when his email responses tend to be brief and begin with “I’m literally preparing for the U.S. Supreme Court right now, but…”

He’s got me there, with the big-deal case on taxing online sales. My best response is, “Yeah, I’m busy, too. I have to clean the kitchen before Mary gets home from work.

If you think that's no big deal, I can put you in touch with Mary for an explanation. But I'd advise you to take legal counsel.

Anyway, discussions are different for me with Noem. Much less frequent. Much more coordinated by staffers. Still fine.  No problem. Professional. Cordial. Productive, I’d argue. But not like things are with Jackley. With him, a couple of texts can turn into a series of emails and into an extended phone call or two, as they did recently about, oh, just about everything, from teacher pay and abortion to Gear-Up and EB-5.

To show you how things digress, or maybe evolve, in our exchanges, I actually began this latest discussion with questions on the horrors of mass-shooting deaths in schools, and how to prevent them here in South Dakota.

School safety is an unavoidable topic these days, as students who survived the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School down in Parkland, Fla., continue to lead a rejuvenated campaign for change in gun-related laws and a lot more.

So the question for Jackley was general, and fairly obvious: What is the South Dakota governor’s role in keeping our kids and educators and other education employees safe at school?

Jackley said he thinks the governor’s role is important on this issue and should begin with training and awareness at schools. That means assuring that school administrators and other employees are trained at diffusing tense situations and that a system is in place to identify potential shooters, in the school and beyond.

“The governor should support the AG and law enforcement on sharing of vital information that may better assist law enforcement in finding individuals that are potentially dangerous,” he said.

Jackley says that whenever he is at a school large enough to have a school resource officer he tries to meet with that officer to make sure he or she has the support and resources needed. For schools without resource officers but with an interest in trained-and-armed “sentinels,” Jackley said he’d be ready as governor to help. He already does as attorney general.

Tri-Valley School District near Colton and Northwest Area School District at Mellette have sentinel programs. And Jackley says his office continues to receive inquiries about training, which increased after the shooting in Florida.

He declined to offer specifics on the number of inquiries or the schools that inquire.

“I’m limited on how on that, I think, if the Legislature wanted a level of secrecy,” he said. “Part of not saying much is that everybody can assume when they walk into a school there are school resource officers as well as sentinels.”

The value of school resource officers was apparently shown in a shooting incident this week at Great Mills High School in Maryland.  When a 17-year-old student pulled a handgun and shot two other students, the school resources officer intervened and exchanged shots with the student with the gun. The armed student later died.

One shooting victim was shot in the leg and has been released from a hospital. The other victim remains in critical condition,.

As you might expect of a GOP candidate for governor in South Dakota, Jackley doesn't see the solution to school shootings in gun control. So he doesn't support raising the legal age to buy AR-15-style rifles or banning their sale. Nor does he support restrictions on "standard magazines used by law-abiding gun owners."

Jackley says he prefers "common sense solutions," such as ensuring dangerous felons are unable to obtain a gun and increasing law enforcement presence in our schools, which he argues will safeguard the Second Amendment while creating a "safer school environment."

Jackley says work needs to be done to improve the reporting system about people who might pose a threat at school. He suggests that it might be fashioned like Project Stand Up, a statewide anonymous-texting program for tips and reports on illegal drugs. But Jackley acknowledges that teachers are concerned about students using cell phones in school, and the challenge of knowing when that use is for a legitimate reports and when it is inappropriate.

Jackley said that if the texting-alert program worked to help identify potentially dangerous students like it has worked for drug tips, it could be an important development.

“We basically turned every citizen into a law-enforcement officer, or at least an information gatherer for law enforcement,” Jackley said.

But what about false reporting?

“We haven’t had a single one,” Jackley said. “Because false reporting is a crime.”

So is killing people, of course, except in certain situations that include state-sanctioned executions, which Jackley supports in a limited manner. He and I disagree on that, and discuss it with some regularity.

Jackley is a Catholic who supports capital punishment. I’m a Catholic who opposes it. Our church opposes it, too, but leaves what I consider to be a sliver of an exemption from that opposition, which Jackley appears to consider moral justification for state-sanctioned killings.

When I asked him what Pope Francis would think about his position on state executions, Jackley said: “You’d have to ask him.”

Fair enough. But as much as I wish Pope Francis would return my call, I have my doubts. So I’ll turn to his published comments, including the one he made to bishops, priests and other clerics last October:

“One has to strongly affirm that condemnation to the death penalty is an inhumane measure that humiliates personal dignity, in whatever form it is carried out. And [it] is, of itself, contrary to the Gospel, because it is freely decided to suppress a human life that is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator, and of which, in the final analysis, God alone is the true judge and guarantor.”

A couple of years earlier, Francis said “no man, not even the murderer” should have his life taken through capital punishment, because all life is sacred and that even in the most vile of criminals there is the possibility of “moral and existential redemption.”

Easy for him to say, I suppose, since he’s not the loved one of someone who has been murdered. And it’s fair to note, on Jackley’s behalf, that the Catholic Church had a long history of acceptance and even approval of the death penalty for certain actions, much of which is based on the Old Testament.

That position, however, has been shifting, or clarifying itself, maybe, particularly in the last half century, in a church that — today at least — interprets and teaches the Old Testament in a different way than the New Testament, as it should.

It’s a church that believes in science, after all, and evolution. And its pope is a powerful advocate for measures to counteract climate change.

It’s not surprising that Pope Francis has been outspoken on the death penalty. But he didn’t begin this transformation of the Catholic position.  Back in the 1960s, Pope John XXIII talked about the need to respect the truths handed down through the centuries in the Roman Catholic Church but also of the necessity to be engaged by and responsive to the realities of the present.

Selective use of capital punishment might have seemed logical, even essential to keeping safety and order in society, a century or more ago.  But now? Well…

Pope John Paul II — who was hardly a liberal — took on the issue specifically in the early 1990s. In the first universal catechism issued in more than 400 years, John Paul stated that only in “cases of extreme gravity” could the death penalty be justified, and then only to protect public safety and order.

And after that, in a revised text a few years later, John Paul II made it clear that in nations with well-established corrections-and-incarcerations systems, instances where the death penalty can be justified are “very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

Which brings us back to Jackley, and his belief that the death penalty is justified in certain cases.

“There are some people that are so evil and have done such misdeeds and are so dangerous the the only way you can protect an innocent life is to take a life,” Jackley said. “I’ve always supported limited use of capital punishment when it’s necessary to protect innocent life.”

Which is his way of saying “sometimes these guys get out,” even from a system designed to keep them in. And, maybe more likely, sometimes these guys kill someone while trying to get out or just because they can.

Jackley’s fall-back specific in that argument is the case where a guard at the state Penitentiary in Sioux Falls was killed during a prison escape attempt by inmates Eric Robert and Rodney Berget. Robert, 50, was executed in October of 2012. Berget, 55, remains on death row.

“They were serving life sentences,” Jackley says. Yet they managed to kill.

Robert was actually service an 80-year sentence — which would have amounted to life — for kidnapping.

Authorities said the two men beat Ronald RJ Johnson with a pipe and took his clothing to wear. And as if the tragedy weren't tragic enough, Johnson wasn’t even scheduled to work that day, but was filling in for another employee. It was his 63rd birthday, too.

Johnson was working at an in-prison work center for inmates. Robert and Berget, though maximum-security inmates, were allowed some movement around the prison, and came into the work building with a load of laundry, and a willingness to kill.Robert told a judge he would have killed more people if could have. And he gave up any appeal and seemed to accept his fate as justice. In the final moments before the lethal injection at the penitentiary, Robert offered these final worlds:

“In the name of justice and liberty and mercy, I authorize and forgive Warden Douglas Weber to execute me for the crimes. It is done.”

The bizarre Jesus-at-the-cross reference by Robert added to the sad, surreal atmosphere at the execution, where Jackley was among the witnesses. That's a duty he believes he must honor as attorney general, whenever the state kills someone. He described the atmosphere in the prison the day of the execution as “sobering and somber.”

“I felt absolutely terrible,” he said. “I don’t have to go to those executions. But I do, because as attorney general my job is to enforce the law. And I’ve always said if I leave an execution and it didn’t bother me I shouldn’t be making those decisions anymore.”

He means the decision to ask for the death penalty in cases of especially heinous murders.  Jackley also witnessed the execution of Donald Moeller for the 1990 abduction, rape and murder of 9-year-old Becky O’Connell of Sioux Falls.  After more than 20 years in prison, Moeller finally admitted that he killed the girl. 

With Jackley on the night of the execution was Tina Curl, Becky O'Connell's mother.

"One of the hardest moments was when Becky's mom wanted her daughter's clothing back," Jackley said. "And we handed a mother the soiled clothing of her daughter. And there's nothing you can do or say, other than try to comfort someone who's in an extreme amount of sorrow and pain."

Jackley thinks Tina Curl got "a level of closure" from the execution. "I don't think comfort is the right word," he said.

It's understandble that some, not all, families of murder victims support the death penalty and "find closure" or some sense of justice in seeing the murderer of their loved ones killed. But there's no indication that the executions serve as a deterrent. A priest friend of mine puts it this way:

"A life for a life makes two lives lost - or more in some situations.  A life for a life does not heal or bring closure.  Nor is it justice.  If someone is raped do we then allow that victim to rape another to "pay back" the debt?  If someone steals my property am I allowed to steal theirs in return? The death penalty is always about emotion - never about reason.  Likewise, it is always about vengeance - never about safety."

But if it were about safety, couldn’t we make things secure enough in prison in this high-technology age to assure nothing like that would happen again? Couldn’t the access of life-sentenced inmates considered risky be so constricted there is no way they could hurt anyone?

I think so. Jackley doubts it, noting that even those imprisoned for life without parole come into contact with medical personnel, corrections officers and other inmates.

“All it  takes is for one person to have his guard off for a moment and we have another loss of innocent life,” Jackley said.

He argues that South Dakota is very conservative in its use of the death penalty. Three men are on death row today. And three people have been executed in the state in recent times, beginning with 25-year-old Elijah Page at about 10 p.m. on July 11, 2007.

I was part of a Rapid City Journal coverage team at the state penitentiary on the night Page died. Fellow Journal reporter Bill Harlan was one of two reporters — the other being Carson Walker of the Associated Press — allowed to witness the execution, then report what they saw that evening.

I’ll write a little bit about that, and about the atmosphere in and around the prison in the days leading up to the execution, and especially that night, in the second part of this blog post next week.

I’ll also talk about the place where 19-year-old Chester Allan Poage was murdered by Page and two others — Briley Piper and Darrell Hoadley — in March of 2000.

I drive past the road leading to that beautiful, awful spot in the northern Black Hills near Spearfish during autumn grouse hunts. And it always reminds me of the horrible way Chester Allan Poage died and the night in the penitentiary when Elijah Page was executed.

As my priest friend says, two lives lost -- and more.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.