Noem goes against board, victims’ families and review process to reduce prison sentences

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When Gov. Kristi Noem reduced seven prisoners’ sentences recently, she overruled the Board of Pardons and Paroles in one case, went against some victims’ family members she hadn’t contacted, and may have violated her own executive order.

The governor issued the sentence reductions, called “commutations,” on Christmas Eve. A news release said all seven people are paroled for the rest of their terms, with electronic monitoring, supervision by parole officers and the threat of a return to prison for any parole violations.

“These seven individuals have each earned a second chance,” Noem said in the news release. “Each of these individuals has demonstrated a low risk of recidivism.”

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The news release named the seven people but said nothing about their criminal records. Court documents show that three of them committed manslaughter seven or more years ago. The other four were all more recently convicted of drug-related crimes and sent to prison this year on multi-year sentences. The commutations collectively eliminated at least 74 years of future prison time.

The release did not explain how Noem came to focus on seven people from a state prison population of roughly 3,400, or what process Noem used to consider the commutations.

Order delegates process to board

The state constitution gives the governor open-ended authority to issue commutations on her own, but a state law offers an alternative method. That law says the governor may issue an executive order delegating applications to the Board of Pardons and Paroles for its review and recommendation.

Noem issued such an order in 2019, her first year in office. South Dakota Searchlight found no indication the order has been amended or rescinded.

The order says, “All applications for executive clemency, whether it be designated a ‘pardon,’ a ‘commutation,’ a ‘reprieve,’ or a ‘remission of a fine or forfeiture’ shall be addressed to and initially reviewed and heard by the Board of Pardons and Paroles.” The order further directs the board to forward its recommendations to the governor for her review.

In six of the seven recent commutations, it’s unclear whether the applications went to the board. South Dakota Searchlight could not find a record of the six cases coming before the board during the past year. Noem’s spokesman, Ian Fury, did not respond to multiple phone messages and emails this week.

Messages to the executive director of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, Val McGovern, and the spokesman for the Department of Corrections, Michael Winder, also went unreturned. An attorney for the Department of Corrections intervened Wednesday by email to say the Searchlight’s messages are being treated as public records requests, and the requests are under review.

Noem overrules board

In one of the seven commutation cases, public records show the Board of Pardons and Paroles denied commutation applications from Tammy Kvasnicka in 2018 and again earlier this year. Until her commutation, Kvasnicka had been in prison 12 years on a 60-year sentence, with 22.5 years suspended by a judge, after causing a 2010 fatal traffic crash in Sioux Falls. Kvasnicka was under the influence of alcohol at the time and driving the wrong way on an interstate.

“To my knowledge, we looked at Tammy Kvasnicka and recommended not granting a commutation at this time,” said Gordy Swanson, member of the Board of Pardons and Paroles. “I don’t recall looking at any of the other ones.”

Board member Chuck Schroyer said he wants to consult with the board’s attorney about how the parole is going to work in these seven cases, since governors have the power to pardon people and commute sentences but it’s the board that makes parole decisions and sets the conditions.

Other board members did not return messages or declined to comment.

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Minnehaha County State’s Attorney Daniel Haggar now leads the office that prosecuted Kvasnicka. He said the Noem administration contacted the office prior to the commutation to seek contact information for the family of Kvasnicka’s victims (one man died in the car crash, and others were injured). Haggar said his office assisted with the request, but he does not know what family members said to administration officials.

The Dakota Scout, a newspaper and website based in Sioux Falls, cited “sources within the Department of Corrections and former inmates at the Women’s Prison in Pierre” in a report stating Kvasnicka had worked at the Governor’s Mansion while incarcerated. The Dakota Scout also noted that Kvasnicka has an unresolved charge for driving under the influence.

More manslaughter commutations

On Christmas Eve, Kvasnicka was one of three people convicted of manslaughter who received a commutation from Noem. Another is Connie Hirsch, who had served 12 years of a 35-year sentence for fatally shooting her husband, Jerold Hirsch, in 2010 at a home east of Pierre.

Connie Hirsch’s defense attorneys said at the time that there was evidence Jerold Hirsch physically abused his wife, and the judge acknowledged that evidence, according to news reports about the sentencing. But the judge imposed a sentence harsher than the one called for in a plea agreement. According to news accounts, the judge described the crime as “cold-blooded murder” and cited evidence that Connie Hirsch shot Jerold Hirsch in the back of the head while he slept.

Jerold Hirsch’s adult daughter, Sandra Lopez, a step-daughter to Connie Hirsch, said the Governor’s Office did not communicate with her about the commutation.

Lopez said she fears for her own safety with Connie Hirsch out of prison: “Who’s to say she wouldn’t go buy a gun again and try to off me now?”

Lopez is angry she did not have an opportunity to oppose the commutation. Notice to the victim is required in applications that receive a hearing before the parole board.

“I don’t feel she deserves a second chance,” Lopez said of Connie Hirsch. “My dad doesn’t get a second chance.”

The third manslaughter convict to receive a commutation from Noem was Whitney Turney, who had served six years of a 25-year sentence with five years suspended by a judge. In court documents, an investigator in the case said Turney stabbed her boyfriend Calvin “C.J.” Shields to death with a knife in 2015 during a fight in Oacoma, stashed the body under a bridge and hid the knife. Turney accepted a plea agreement that dismissed a murder charge in exchange for her guilty plea to manslaughter.

Shields’ brother, Glenn Shields, provided a statement to South Dakota Searchlight on behalf of his family.

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“It was quite the gut check when I first heard,” Glenn Shields said of the commutation news. “My heart sank and my stomach was in knots. I couldn’t comprehend the decision.”

He acknowledged the governor’s right to grant a commutation but said he wished the Governor’s Office would have communicated with the family. He said the family did not receive any notification that Turney’s sentence would be reduced.

“Whitney Turney might’ve been a star inmate while she was in prison,” Glenn Shields said. “But that doesn’t mean she’s going to be a star civilian.”

Four had served nine months or less

The Board of Pardons and Paroles requires its applicants to be two years beyond their sentencing date to be eligible for a commutation. But none of the prisoners who benefited from Noem’s remaining four Christmas Eve commutations had served more than nine months of their multi-year prison sentences. All four were convicted of drug-related crimes.

Danielle Blakney was sent to prison in September and served about three months of an eight-year sentence (with four years suspended by the judge) before her commutation. A law enforcement officer in Lawrence County found marijuana, methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia in Blakney’s vehicle during a 2021 traffic stop for expired license plate tags.

The judge’s sentencing order said Blakney had proven through past actions “that she is not a candidate for probation and needs a structured environment to continue her necessary sobriety.” The judge also wrote that Blakney “has a long criminal history involving a prior drug distribution.”

Meanwhile, court records show separate, pending charges of domestic abuse and intentional damage to property against Blakney in Lawrence County, where she’s scheduled for a hearing on Wednesday.

The remaining three commutations were for:

  • Britni Goodhart, who was arrested with methamphetamine in 2020 in Milbank, was sentenced to probation in 2021, absconded and missed probation appointments, and was resentenced this past March to five years in prison with two years suspended.

  • Jamie Bosone, who was arrested this past April in Davison County with fentanyl and marijuana, and was sentenced this past August to five years in prison with one year suspended by a judge who wrote that Bosone was unsuited for probation because her “addiction is so extreme, her elderly mother and tender-aged child were exposed to extremely dangerous conditions,” and “she used a sophisticated method to obtain, process and possess dangerous drugs.”

  • Jerome Ferguson, who was arrested in 2021 in Davison County with marijuana and methamphetamine, received a sentence of probation, violated that probation by missing an appointment with Court Services and failing to successfully complete treatment programs, and was resentenced this past April to five years in prison with two years suspended.

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South Dakota Searchlight attempted to contact defense attorneys and prosecutors involved in all seven of the cases for which Noem issued a commutation.

Scott Bratland, who represented Britni Goodhart in the criminal case for which she received a commutation, declined to comment. No other defense attorneys responded to messages.

Most of the prosecutors have also been unresponsive. Davison County State’s Attorney Jim Miskimins, whose office prosecuted two of the seven people who received reduced sentences, declined to say whether he had any communication with the Noem administration about the matter. He also declined to express any opinion on the commutations.

“Judges impose sentences, and there are boards as well as the governor that have other functions that they’re able to legally take at other junctures,” Miskimins said. “So based on that legal structure, it is what it is. I do my job and let other people do their jobs.”

This article originally appeared on Sioux Falls Argus Leader: Noem goes against board, victims’ families to reduce prison sentences