US congressman Janklow faces 11 years in jail for killing motorcyclist in road accident

Andrew Gumbel
Wednesday 10 December 2003 01:00

Bill Janklow, South Dakota's lone congressman, who held extraordinary sway over his home state for 30 years, has been forced to bid farewell to his political career after a home-town jury convicted him of manslaughter and reckless driving charges arising from a fatal traffic accident.

Janklow announced his resignation from the House of Representatives within an hour of the guilty verdicts on Monday, preferring to go quietly than face the humiliation of an Ethics Committee hearing and possible expulsion from Capitol Hill. He will be sentenced next month, and faces up to 11 years in jail.

The six-day trial in Flandreau - no more than a dot on the map of the Great Plains - was a fascinating confrontation between small-town political sympathies and more elemental notions of justice.

Janklow was arrested in August after his Cadillac ploughed through a road junction, where he was supposed to give way, at more than 70mph and knocked Randolph Scott, 55, a Vietnam veteran, off his motorcycle, killing him instantly.

Janklow never denied running a stop sign or speeding, but sought to explain away Mr Scott's death as the result of his diabetes, claiming a low blood-sugar level impaired his judgement. Had the trial concerned an "ordinary" citizen, it probably would have been over in a matter of hours. But Janklow could not have a higher profile in South Dakota, having served as governor for 16 years before taking up the state's lone seat in the House. His lawyers successfully prevented the prosecution from introducing much of his previous driving record, which includes 12 speeding tickets between 1990 and 1994. They also found medical experts to lend some credence to what the prosecution characterised as "that goofy hypoglycaemia defence".

Jury selection proved tricky in a town where almost everyone either knows Janklow or has an entrenched opinion about him. The 12 jurors were selected from an extraordinary pool of 108 local citizens. Two dozen of the jurors were rejected because of their personal relationships.

Even when the guilty verdicts were read out, many in the courtroom could not believe their ears. A quietly muttered "oh my God" was heard from the Scott family. "I can't believe it," the victim's mother, Marcella Scott, added.

In the end, though, the evidence was simply too damning. Two state troopers testified that they had previously caught Janklow driving at speeds of 80 or even 90mph on rural roads, but chose to issue warnings rather than a ticket. In his 1999 state address as governor, Janklow had even admitted: "Bill Janklow speeds when he drives. Shouldn't, but he does."

The prosecution trod very softly around the motivation of state troopers who had let Janklow off so lightly, another indication of small-town politics in play. Asked by an out-of-town reporter at one point whether there had been a policy of not ticketing Janklow, Lyle Tolsma, a state trooper, said: "I'd rather not answer that until the trial is over."

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