Rationalizing, it is said, is the reduction of ideals to the level of one's conduct. It's also what occurred on Jan. 22, when former South Dakota Congressman William "Wild Bill" Janklow was sentenced for killing motorcyclist Randy Scott. That the 100 days the man will spend behind bars will be inconvenient to him, there is no doubt. But if "justice" is defined by a balancing of scales, one would ask what weight of measure was used to determine that a man's life - Scott's in this case - is worth a mere 100 days?
Many across this state, including those in the Moody County Courthouse that day, noted Janklow's age, poor health, loss of attorney's license, loss of his Congressional seat and the lawsuit filed against him by Scott's family as factors that should be and, apparently were, weighed into the decision on the sentence to be handed down to the man. Yet, three of those factors exist solely as a result of the irresponsible behavior the four-term South Dakota Governor displayed on Aug. 16, 2003 that resulted in the loss of another man's life. And whether from an arrogant "I own the roads" attitude or from failing to take care of his own health (per his "diabetes defense"), Scott's death came as a result of choices Janklow did - or did not - make that warm summer day. To use the destructive waters that flowed back on him from the tidal wave of irresponsibility Janklow created that afternoon as a reason to temper this criminal's - yes, criminal's - punishment is as absurd as rationalizing (the key word here) that the "peripheral punishment" received by Saddam Hussein from the loss of his dictator's seat and his time spent in a hole trying to escape American forces are circumstances to be considered in his favor when judgement is finally passed on him.
Age as a factor? Not for Scott, He stopped aging on Aug. 16, 2003. Physical disease as a factor? Scott, fortunately, will no longer endure the physical agony he was dealt by Janklow which, even if for a brief moment, is unimaginable. Moreover, if - as has been suggested - we are to forget about Janklow's 30-year history of speeding when considering his "punishment" for killing Scott, why should we take into account his 30 years of political service to the state (where Scott was not even a resident)? Are we staying in the present, or bringing in the past? And if we're bringing in the past, is it only a selective examination of the past? One would hope that there would be at least as much consistency in any court of law in South Dakota as there is in ? South Dakota's weather. Enough said.
As the son of a police officer, and as a former Marine MP, I was taught - both as a child and while in the Corps - that those in positions of authority should be held to a higher standard than any "average" citizen. As a "cop," you should be expected to enforce - not break - the law. As a legislator, you should be expected to create and acknowledge - not dismiss and ignore - legislation. On two occasions while serving as a Corrections Specialist during my time in the military, I saw fellow MPs brought into prison handcuffed and shackled. In both cases, they'd been caught dealing in contraband with convicts. Both had "excuses" for their irresponsible behavior, but it was explained to both of these young men that the moment they put on their badge, they made themselves a part of the law, not above it. Or, to put it another way, "if you can't do the time, don't do the crime." The same applies for seasoned elected officials, and the same applies to Janklow.
For more than three decades and, by his own admission, even after he killed Scott, Janklow ignored the speeding laws of the very state he served at the discretion of the people of South Dakota. Had he been a law-abiding citizen during his tenure to the state (excessive speeding as a norm is not abiding the law), had he no record of speeding tickets, accidents, etc., and had he possessed enough strength of character and respect for the man he "accidentally" killed to come forward at the scene of the crime - or immediately afterward - to admit his guilt and ask forgiveness, I might be of a different opinion regarding his sentence. So might many others. But since Janklow didn't show enough respect for Scott, his family or the people of this state to present himself with the courage and integrity of a true leader, I'll never know how such honesty might have changed my view of the man.
Quite frankly, I have no sympathy for Janklow or the fate - minimal in effect as it may be - that he has created for himself. I do regret the negative impact his actions have had not only on the people of South Dakota but on the country as a whole. He was, after all, a part of the legislative body that represents every American. I also regret the impact his irresponsibility has had on his own family - the full extent of which I'm not sure they fully realize. Most of all, I regret the precedent that has been set by a judicial system that has chosen to value a man's life at 100 days - cheap, by anyone's standards - be it in South Dakota or on the streets of Baghdad.
But if there's one aspect of Judge Rodney Steele's sentencing that casts a shadow over the passing of Scott more than any other, it's his decision to expunge Janklow's record after a three year probation period is completed. Yes. I'm aware it's South Dakota law to do so when sentences are suspended, but it was Judge Steele who chose to suspend Janklow's sentence. Who, may I ask, can suspend the maximum sentence Janklow levied on Scott on a lonely stretch of South Dakota highway one warm August afternoon? Who can expunge Scott's "record" - as a part of eternity?
Aristotle once said "the only stable state is one where all men are equal before the law." I question the stability of any state where the scales of justice have determined that one man's "sentence" of death isn't worth more than 100 days of inconvenience for the man who killed him, followed by an official denial that the incident ever occurred. Yes boys - let's keep those records clean. In the typical Western European credo, "as long as it's not written down, it didn't really happen."
Now, click your shoes three times - "I don't remember anything, I don't remember anything." Poof! We're over the rainbow, in South Dakota.
Jim Kent is a freelance writer and radio journalist who is regularly heard on National Native News Radio and Free Speech Radio News. He lives in Hot Springs, S.D.