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Born in Chicago in September of 1939, Janklow dropped out of high school due to a juvenile delinquency charge when he accepted a judge's offer to join the Marine Corps instead; he served there from 1956 to 1959. Despite the lack of a high school degree, he managed to talk his way into the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, earning a bachelor of science degree in 1964. Two years later, he received a law degree from the same institution.
Janklow became the chief legal officer of the South Dakota Legal Services division, a program offering free legal services to American Indians under a program of the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity, and practiced on the Rosebud Reservation from 1966 to 1973. He briefly started a private practice before he was elected as the state's attorney general, holding the post from 1974 to 1979.
He was in this office during a turbulent period of American Indian activism. In May of 1975, he directed the highway patrol and Bureau of Indian Affairs police to launch tear gas into the Yankton Sioux Industries Pork Plant to end a 16-hour standoff with seven armed activists. Janklow expressed annoyance at the lack of federal response in such incidents, commenting, "It's always the state that has to do the federal government's work." Just days later, American Indian Movement co-founder Russell Means and fellow AIM member John Thomas were shot, albeit not fatally. Janklow was also attorney general when FBI agents Jack L. Coler and Ronald A. Williams were gunned down on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in June of 1975, the incident that would lead to the controversial conviction of Leonard Peltier. "It looked like an execution," Janklow said. "They were riddled with bullets."
AIM leaders frequently clashed with Janklow during this period in his life. During his first campaign for attorney general, Janklow explained an accusation that he had left high school after being accused of raping a 17-year-old by saying the juvenile delinquency charge had been dismissed and that it was not a case of rape. A more serious charge came from AIM leader Dennis Banks, who brought up an accusation against Janklow by Jacinta Eagle Deer. She said that in 1967, when she was 15 and Janklow was still practicing on the Rosebud Reservation, that Janklow raped her at gunpoint after she accepted his offer of a ride home. Janklow was never criminally charged, but Banks started a petition to disbar him in the tribal courts and was successful in doing so in 1974.
Banks in particular became an enemy to Janklow as he took refuge from 1973 riot and firearms charges in California. In April of 1976, Banks' attorney said Janklow despised Banks and wanted to see him dead. "The man's life has been threatened by the highest judicial officer of South Dakota, William Janklow," the attorney said. "Mr. Janklow, the attorney general of South Dakota, has made the statement that the only way to deal with the AIM leaders is to shoot them in the head." Other sources quote Janklow as saying that the only way to resolve Indian issues in South Dakota would be to "put a gun to the AIM leaders' heads and pull the trigger." California agreed with Banks' contention that his life would be in danger if returned to South Dakota. During Janklow's first successful gubernatorial campaign in 1978, Banks accused Janklow of making the feud a campaign issue and said Janklow's "whole career is based on the conviction of Dennis Banks."
California's decision about Banks rankled Janklow so much that he still held a grudge against the state late in his first term as governor. In 1982, he told a reporter that he had started giving the "California option" to criminals, letting them choose between serving a prison term in South Dakota or promising to live out the rest of their life in California. "You people decided you liked our felons. It's like the Statue of Liberty," Janklow sniped. "We kind of feel there is a beacon in California saying, 'Give us your felons, your pickpockets, your crooked masses yearning to be free.'"
Janklow served his first two terms as governor of South Dakota from 1979 to 1987. He said he endeavored to be a servant of the people. He was a sometimes brusque speaker and frequently made controversial remarks, to the point where some considered him more of a bully than a straight talker; it earned him the nickname "Wild Bill." Yet he also frequently partnered with people from across party lines to accomplish projects for the state or advocate for what he thought was right. He praised Democratic President Jimmy Carter in 1979 for cutting oil imports from Iran, declaring, "It's about time. I couldn't support you more. For the first time in a year, I'm proud to be an American again." Six years later, in response to Republican President Ronald Reagan's proposal to cut federal aid to farms, Janklow led 103 state legislators to Washington, D.C., to advocate for South Dakota's farmers; he commented that "the farmers' greatest enemy is the Congress of the United States because they don't have the guts and the courage and they won't make the hard decisions to straighten out America's fiscal mess."
One of Janklow's most notable accomplishments in his first term as governor was a successful effort to lure Citibank to the state. Realizing that usury rates in New York were making it difficult for them to keep credit card interest rates ahead of inflation, he convinced the legislature to repeal similar laws in South Dakota. The legislature also consented to Janklow's idea of having the state purchase a crucial railroad line to undermine a threat that the private company holding the property would abandon it. He also negotiated a deal to sell Missouri River water to a pipeline and coal slurry system, a deal which would be scrapped three years later.
South Dakota law prohibited a governor from seeking a third consecutive term, so Janklow instead made a bid for the Senate in 1986. Janklow said he did not believe the incumbent, James Abdnor, would be able to defeat Democratic candidate Tom Daschle in the general election. The prediction would prove correct, but Janklow was unable to win the Republican nomination. Returning again to private practice, he reappeared on the political scene in 1994. This time, he had to seek the party's nomination against incumbent Governor Walter D. Miller, who had served as lieutenant governor until the death of Governor George Mickelson in a plane crash the year before. Janklow was able to win both the primary and the general election, and another win in 1998 made him the first South Dakota governor to be elected four times.
Janklow advocated the legislative approval of a 30 percent reduction in property taxes for agricultural land and owner-occupied homes. The state ultimately compromised with a 20 percent reduction, making up revenue by axing 755 state jobs, increasing the state share of video lottery proceeds, and restructuring areas such as state aid to students. Other work included an expanded immunization program for children, an expansion of adoptions for traditionally long-term foster children, and improvements in education technology including having schools wired for multiple technologies such as statewide Intranet and video conferencing equipment.
Janklow also implemented a number of policies on the state's prison system. He advocated turning the University of South Dakota at Springfield into a prison and had prisoners put to work on public projects such as the construction of affordable housing for the elderly, fighting forest fires, and flood response. He won the state the authority to place juvenile offenders, with a corresponding development of juveniles facilities and programs. This program later came under scrutiny when a 14-year-old girl died during a forced run in 1999. Two years later, with the number of juvenile inmates declining, Janklow closed down the system and put the remaining 57 juveniles into private and out-of-state programs.
In 2002, with term limits again preventing him from running for a fifth term as governor, Janklow ran for the House of Representatives. He was successful in this race and would work with Daschle on a number of goals, but this career would be cut short after scarcely a year in office.
In August of 2003, Janklow was driving his 1995 Cadillac through the South Dakota community of Trent when he ran a stop sign and collided with a motorcyclist, 55-year-old Randolph E. Scott of Minnesota. The accident killed Scott and left Janklow with head and hand injuries. The intersection was surrounded by fields of corn, which made it impossible for drivers to see other motorists coming up on the site, and neither man had been drinking. However, the police investigation determined that Janklow was not only in the wrong but criminally liable in the accident. Scott had the right of way and was traveling at the legal speed; Janklow was going 70 to 75 miles per hour in a 55 mile per hour zone.
He was charged with second-degree manslaughter, a felony and the most serious possible charge in the state in a fatal accident where alcohol was not involved, and misdemeanor charges of speeding, reckless driving, and running a stop sign. Republican leaders urged Janklow to resign, but he continued to serve in Congress while awaiting trial.
The trial began in November, with the prosecution critiquing Janklow's spotty driving record. In the decade prior to Scott's death, Janklow had incurred about a dozen speeding tickets and was involved in eight accidents. Janklow had even referenced his driving record in advocating harsher prison sentences for drug dealers during his time as governor; he admitted then that he liked to speed on the road, but would be less likely to do so if he was risking a long prison sentence. He had nearly had an accident at the same intersection eight months before. Witnesses testified that a car nearly crashed into the side of their truck, and that the vehicle was later traced to Janklow.
The defense essentially conceded the misdemeanor charges in trying to get the felony dismissed. Janklow took the stand in his own defense, but said he could not remember several things related to the accident and admitted that he had a habit of speeding on country roads and had probably gone through stop signs by accident before. Janklow's attorney said Janklow was having a diabetic reaction at the time of the accident, since he had taken his insulin shot but had not eaten anything during a day of meetings and driving long meetings. Daschle was among the witnesses called by the defense to confirm that he hadn't seen Janklow eat anything during the day of the accident. The prosecution ridiculed this as a "goofy hypoglycemia defense," saying Janklow told emergency responders that his blood sugar was fine; diabetes groups also criticized Janklow for the excuse.
The jury found Janklow guilty of all charges; he announced an hour later that he would resign his seat. He was sentenced to 100 days in prison. In a special election held early in 2004, Democratic candidate Stephanie Herseth won Janklow's seat; she would serve the remainder of his term and go on to win another three terms.
Janklow soon sought to appeal his conviction, but the first effort was unsuccessful in part because the state supreme court in its entirety had to recuse itself. Janklow had appointed all five judges during his long career, four to the supreme court and one to the circuit court. However, in 2005 he challenged the revocation of his law license as part of the conviction and was successful in getting it restored in 2006. He again argued that speed was necessary in the large state, saying he had to go fast as governor to get to disaster scenes. “I was a hero for getting there in a hurry," he said. "When I got blown off the road in a tornado going to Spencer, people complimented me.” Janklow would resume his old driving habits after his driving privileges were restored in 2007, picking up four citations for speeding.
A few years later, Janklow announced that he had been diagnosed with brain cancer. He died of this malady in January of 2012.
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