A court in the little South Dakota town of Flandreau is faced with a big challenge: deciding whether the fatal crash of a car and motorcycle at a rural intersection was a tragic accident or felony manslaughter.
This would be a serious dilemma for a judge or jury anywhere, but the case is magnified many times over because the driver of the car that killed the motorcyclist is a sitting U.S. congressman.
And former four-term governor of the state.
And noted lead-footed driver.
Rep. Bill Janklow, who was charged last week with second-degree manslaughter, speeding, and reckless driving in the Aug. 16 crash, actually confessed to a proclivity for driving too fast in a speech before the South Dakota legislature in 1999 when he was governor.
“Bill Janklow speeds when he drives,” he said. “Shouldn't, but he does. When he gets the ticket, he pays it.”
In one five-year period in the 1990s, the man they nicknamed Wild Bill harvested a dozen speeding tickets. Since 1992, he's been involved in seven accidents.
But there will be no simple ticket this time. The penalty for second-degree manslaughter in South Dakota is 8 to 10 years in prison, plus a $10,000 fine. And, in all likelihood, an ignominious end to Mr. Janklow's flamboyant 30-year political career.
The facts in the case are not in dispute, authorities say. Mr. Janklow, 63, blew past a stop sign at more than 70 miles per hour, and his Cadillac collided with the motorcycle at a crossroad. The 55-year-old motorcyclist died instantly.
The incident has South Dakotans divided, just as they were when Mr. Janklow was a state official. Some liked his hard-charging style and reputation for getting things done. Others called him a bully.
One constituent declared that it was obvious that Mr. Janklow had not “intentionally hurt anybody,” but such forgiving testimony is unlikely to carry weight, either in Moody County jurisprudence or the court of public opinion.
If he is acquitted of the manslaughter charge, critics will say he got off because of who he is.
If he pleads guilty or is convicted, the ethics committee of the U.S. House of Representatives must investigate. House rules would prohibit him from voting in Congress unless or until his record is clear or he is re-elected.
Either way, South Dakota political observers are saying that Bill Janklow pushed his luck - and the accelerator pedal - too far. After 12 tickets and seven accidents, he can't say he wasn't warned.
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