Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Eagle Butte


A tale of  two manslaughter cases

South Dakota has a Criminal Justice problem. Specifically, it has a manslaughter sentencing problem that needs to be reexamined, reformed and remedied.

South Dakota is one of three states in the nation that dishes out life without the possibility of parole to people that are convicted of, or plead guilty to, 1st-degree manslaughter.

Furthermore, when someone has been convicted of 1st-degree manslaughter they may get the same sentence that someone else receives when they are convicted of 1st-degree murder: Life.

There is no distinction then between manslaughter one and murder one.

Murder is intentional and premeditated. Manslaughter is unintentional and accidental. So why the same sentence? To avoid a trial? Save money? Speed the process?

Nicholas A. Scherr and Joaquin J. Ramos pleaded guilty to 1st-degree manslaughter.

Scherr was given 100 years in 1996 for the rape and killing of Candace Rough Surface in August 1980. Ramos was given life without parole in November 1994 for the killing of Debbie J. Martines in February 1994, which was then commuted by former Governor Mike Rounds to 150 years in December 2010.

Scherr was paroled on May 16, 2019 and released on July 11, 2019 after having served just 23 years in prison. Ramos will languish in prison until 2071.

Why the disparity in sentences? Politics? Money? Favors?

Nicholas A. Scherr comes from a prominent family. Joaquin J. Ramos does not.

Scherr’s family has money and prestige, having an arena named after his twin brothers in Mobridge, SD. Ramos does not enjoy the same privilege and does not belong to anywhere in South Dakota.

Scherr pleaded guilty to beating, raping and shooting Rough Surface four times in a field along with his cousin James Stroh, who was ordered by Scherr to rape and then shoot Surface once in the back of the head. As if that wasn’t enough, the cousins then chained and dragged her naked body behind their pickup truck for nearly a mile through the field and dumped her by the Missouri River before she was found nine months later in May 1981. Candi, as she was known, was an 18-year old Lakota American Indian.

A docufilm was made based on this crime:

Joaquin J. Ramos pleaded guilty to killing his fiancée, Debbie J. Martines – who was four months pregnant – with a gun he held in his hand. At the time of the shooting, Ramos was involved in a heated argument with a co-worker that he wanted out of his home. Ramos, who was under the influence of alcohol, could not function normally. Martines, believing she could control Ramos, tried to physically restrain him, but was tragically shot in the shoulder as she attempted to calm him down. Sadly, she was shot in the presence of her two small children.

Ramos was arrested and imprisoned the day he killed Martines.

Scherr disappeared for 15 years the day he killed Rough Surface.

Almost immediately, Ramos pleaded guilty…because he knew he was.

Almost immediately, Scherr beat, raped, killed…and then vanished.

Ramos lives with a lifelong regret that he killed his fiancée.

Scherr lives with a lifelong regret that he was caught.

We know for sure Ramos had not killed again after his arrest.

We don’t know for sure if Scherr had raped and killed again.

Bank robbers who rob a bank and get away with it feel emboldened to rob again. The same is said about rapists and serial killers who get away with a crime the first time. South Dakota, do you know for sure if Nicholas A. Scherr had not been on the run in other beatings, rapes, murders?

Ramos has fewer than 12 minor infractions against him in 25 years.

How few or how many infractions did Scherr accumulate in 23 years?

Ramos is a model prisoner.

Scherr was a prisoner we know nothing of.

The late South Dakota Governor Bill Janklow took notice of Ramos’ dramatic rehabilitative improvements. So did the 2008 South Dakota Board of Pardons and Parole. So did Senator Mike Rounds as Governor.

Who took notice of Scherr’s rehabilitative improvements?

Former Governor Rounds did an about face after commuting Ramos’ sentence and has written repeatedly to the Parole Board to remind them that he wants Ramos to remain in prison after Martines’ family opposed Ramos’ commutation.

I wonder…did Rounds ever write to the Parole Board opposing Scherr’s release?

Did Rounds ever oppose Douglas Scholten’s sweetheart deal? – zero time for manslaughter one. And what about Robert L. Slee? – one year for manslaughter one.

I have not read anywhere that Rounds opposed anyone’s release except for Joaquin J. Ramos. I wonder why?

I call upon Governor Kristi Noem and the South Dakota Legislators to begin the process to make changes to the Criminal Justice System concerning manslaughter sentencing statutes that allows judges to dish out zero time to one man and life without parole to another for 1st-degree manslaughter.

South Dakota, in addition to Washinghton and Colorado, hand out sentences of life without the possibility of parole for 1st-degree manslaughter. Forty seven states hand out 4 – 40 years for the same offense. And quite often the sentences are substantially reduced or even cut in half.

It is time for Criminal Justice Reform in South Dakota.

Nicholas A. Scherr was paroled and released.

The time has come for my nephew, Joaquin J Ramos, to be paroled and released too.


By Angelo Cruz, Spring Hil, FL