FLANDREAU, S.D. - The felony manslaughter case against Rep. Bill Janklow, a South Dakota Republican, got under way yesterday in a crowded and tense courtroom here, with prosecutor William Ellingson describing the state's only congressman as a liar and reckless driver who disregarded traffic laws "without a care."
Defense attorneys countered in their opening statement that Janklow - who has admitted to speeding - was medically impaired when he allegedly ran a stop sign on a rural road in August, striking and killing a motorcyclist.
The 64-year-old Janklow, who is diabetic, had not eaten properly the day of the accident and his reactions were slowed because of hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, defense attorney Ed Evans told the court.
Janklow is charged with "reckless driving and second-degree manslaughter, not failure to eat," Evans said to the jury of nine women and four men selected earlier in the day. One of the 13 will later be declared an alternate.
The trial is expected to last a week. If convicted in the death of Randy Scott, 55, Janklow faces up to 10 years in prison, a $10,000 fine and potentially the end of his political career.
The prosecution is to begin calling witnesses today. The list includes several police officers and emergency medical personnel; Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, also of South Dakota, who was at an event with Janklow the day of the accident; and Jennifer Walters of the nearby town of Trent. Walters is expected to testify that last December she experienced a near-collision with Janklow at the same intersection.
"Randy Scott's fate was sealed all because of an important person, driving an important-looking vehicle," Ellingson said. "Had the defendant simply stopped as required ... Randy Scott would be alive."
Evans was quick to fight back.
He told the jury that the accident came at the end of a two-day road trip for Janklow and his chief of staff, Chris Braendlin.
The pair had spent a day in the capital of Pierre, dealing with business meetings and visiting a dying friend of Janklow's. When Janklow was tired, Evans said, Braendlin drove the politician's 1995 white Cadillac with the dark-tinted windows.
The next day, the two men traveled to Aberdeen for an event celebrating the anniversary of the end of the Korean War. After that, Evans said, they headed south and ultimately traveled down Highway 13 - a back-road that cuts through Flandreau and close to Janklow's home in Brandon.
Although Janklow did take an insulin shot in the morning, Evans said, the politician did not eat throughout the day of the accident. But drugs that Janklow was taking at the time for hypertension masked the hypoglycemia, he said.
"The first thing he did after the accident, he tried to get the car started and keep going with [their] trip," Evans said. "He would not get out of the car when his assistant [Braendlin] said: `This car's on fire.' He was mixed up, he was confused."
"Mr. Janklow may speed," Evans told the jury. "But he didn't have a habit of driving through stop signs. He's not a fool."
Throughout the trial's opening statements, Janklow sat quietly at the corner of the defense table. Dressed in a dark blue suit and striped tie, the politician never made eye contact with members of the jury.
Throughout much of yesterday afternoon, Scott's relatives - including his mother, Marcella Scott, his widow and two daughters - sat in the benches behind the prosecution table.
Many of the original 89 people in the jury pool, who were drawn from the estimated 4,000 registered voters in the southern South Dakota region, knew each other from school, church or the neighborhood. And most had ties to either the defendant, the attorneys or the witnesses.
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