Few people were less surprised than I was that Bill Janklow got caught speeding. Again.
I have no insider knowledge or extra dim view of Janklow, despite some of his protests about my coverage while he was in office. What I do have is a memory shared by a few dozen others who were in the courtroom in Flandreau on Jan. 22, 2004, when a judge sentenced Janklow to serve 100 days in jail for manslaughter.
I remember him standing up to speak to the judge before the sentence was issued. I remember him pointing his finger in the air, punctuating his points. I remember his tone and struggle still to put the right word to it – petulant, defiant, perhaps Janklovian is the best. It was not humble or contrite, that is for sure, even though he used the word “sorry” multiple times.
But that is my point. South Dakota law did not allow cameras in the courtroom in 2004, and hundreds of thousands of South Dakotans must rely on dry court transcprits and press accounts from people like me to get a sense of what happened that day. History has been cheated, and eight years on, my memory has blurred the details. I have only the press accounts of the day for reference.
I went back and re-read the story I wrote for the Rapid City Journal. Despite my memory of Janklow’s demeanor, some of his quotations still took my breath away as I read them anew in 2011.
“I can tell you this, judge. All my driving tickets were before 1995. While I was governor, I drove fast, really fast. I had a lot of places to go and things to do. I lived in Pierre,” Janklow said. “I’m not making excuses. I’m just telling you, that’s reality. Since I left that office, I’ve been stopped one time and was given a warning ticket in Nebraska. I drove thousands and thousands of miles, and nobody complained about my driving.”
At the time, what captured the collective imagination was the sentence itself – no prison time, but still jail, and the matter would be wiped from his record if he successfully completed probation. That’s what folks were talking about in January 2004. Far less attention was paid to Janklow’s own remarks, which to be fair also included passages in which, in word at least, he took responsibility for having killed a man.
“I fully understand I killed somebody. I’m sorry for what’s happened. I wish I could change it. … I can only imagine how I’d feel if this happened to one of my children. I’m not sure I’d be forgiving, ever. If I could change places with him – and it’s easy for me to say that – but I would.”
None of us can ever know how Janklow felt and still feels in his heart about his role in that tragic traffic crash of Aug. 16, 2003, whatever the tone he took in court. But had there been cameras allowed in courtrooms on Jan. 22, 2004, I am certain that South Dakotans would have been as fixated on Janklow’s statements as they were on his sentence.
I am thankful that South Dakota has begun the move to allow our state’s courtrooms to be truly open to the public as judges and other court officials grapple with real concerns over disruption to solemn proceedings. (As of this year, cameras can roll if both attorneys and the judge agree to it.)
I think the concerns can be addressed by the professionals involved. As Janklow’s case attests, the public misses key components of public trials when they cannot witness those events for themselves.