Victim’s family questions commutation of father’s killer

The decision to commute the sentences of three women convicted of manslaughter by Governor Kristi Noem is drawing strong criticism from some of the victim’s families.
FILE - South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks in Orlando, Fla., Feb. 25, 2022.
Published: Dec. 30, 2022 at 7:08 PM CST
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PIERRE, S.D. - On Christmas Eve, Governor Kristi Noem commuted the sentences of seven people serving time in South Dakota prisons.

One of those people was Connie Hirsch, who was sentenced in 2012 for the shooting death of her husband, Jerold “Jerry” Hirsch, and Jerry’s family is left with questions.

Sandra Lopez, Jerry’s daughter, explained that getting the news of the commutation decision reminded her of the day she learned that her father had been killed.

“I got a phone call from the Crime Victim Advocate for Hughes County, and she asked if anyone had notified me that Connie had been released by the Governor,” explained Lopez. “And I said I wasn’t aware of it... I felt numb.”

Lopez and the rest of Jerry’s family were not notified ahead of the press release announcing the commutation decisions. State officials told them that this was because they are not registered with “SAVIN,” the state’s program intended to notify crime victims of certain developments, like commutation and parole decisions.

Jerry Hirsch, along with other deceased family members, are buried in a family plot in the...
Jerry Hirsch, along with other deceased family members, are buried in a family plot in the Riverside Cemetery in Pierre, South Dakota. Hirsch was shot and killed by his wife, Connie Hirsch, on May 9th, 2010.(Austin Goss DNN/KOTA)

In her initial release, Noem said that those chosen for commutation had a “low risk of recidivism,” and “had earned a second chance.”

But that pales in comparison to how former Circuit Court Judge Mark Barnett described Hirsch’s crimes during a 2012 sentencing hearing.

“If you went to trial, you would be convicted of first-degree murder. No judge would have any option,” Barnett told Hirsch during her hearing at the Hughes County Courthouse. “No discretion, it would be a mandatory life sentence. The physical evidence was very damning that he was asleep when you put a bullet in him.”

Hirsch, who lived in Blunt at the time with her husband, plead guilty in March of that year to first-degree manslaughter, in exchange for the prosecution to drop a murder charge, and pursue no more than a 20 year prison sentence.

“If it was me, I would believe that I can go out and kill someone I don’t like now, and I will just be out in no time,” said Lopez. “That is the way I take this. It is like a life doesn’t matter. She is the Governor, she should ask everyone involved what their feelings are.”

But now, Lopez, Jerry’s family, and other family members of victims from across the country are left only to wonder. Noem’s office has declined to elaborate beyond the rationale provided in their initial press release.

“These seven individuals have each earned a second chance. Each of these individuals has demonstrated a low risk of recidivism. They are being released with precautions in place such as electronic monitoring and parole supervision to help them succeed,” Noem explained in the release.

“If I could ask the Governor anything, I would like to ask her how she would feel if it was her dad? How would you feel, if it was your father, and they released his murderer?”

Controversies around other Commutations

Hirsch was one of three women charged with manslaughter to receive a commutation from Noem. The other two were Tammy Kvasnicka and Whitney Turley.

Turley stabbed her boyfriend, Calvin “CJ” Shields to death in 2015 in Oacoma, and attempted to hide his body afterwards.

Kvasnicka was serving a 60 year sentence, after a fatal car accident she was at fault for in 2010. In that accident, Kvasnicka drove drunk on the wrong side of a highway in Sioux Falls, before striking the vehicle of Michael Xayavong. Xayavong was killed in the collision, and others were injured.

Calvin Shields’ brother, Glenn Shields, provided a statement to South Dakota Searchlight on behalf of the family.

“It was quite the gut check when I first heard,” Glenn Shields said of the decision to commute Turley’s sentence. “My heart sank and my stomach was in knots. I couldn’t comprehend the decision.”

According to reporting by The Dakota Scout, Kvasnicka worked at the Governor’s Mansion on a work-release program from 2016 until her commutation. Kvasnicka also has an unresolved felony DUI charge out of Faulk County that occurred prior to the fatal 2010 crash.

The decision to release Kvasnicka by Noem goes against the advice of the state’s Pardon and Paroles Board, a nine-member appointed board charged with the authority to make decisions of parole, the revocation of parole, and parole policy and procedure.

In both 2018 and 2022, the board denied commutation applications filed by Kvasnicka. A request for comment to Val McGovern, Executive Director of the Pardon and Paroles Board, and the Department of Corrections were not answered.

A spokesperson for the South Dakota Attorney General’s office also declined to comment on whether or not they were notified of the commutation decisions ahead of time.