DEADWOOD — He is a victim’s voice when that voice is silenced by evil. As a career prosecutor, Lawrence County State’s Attorney John Fitzgerald has carried the torch for more than three decades and served the citizens of South Dakota by fighting for justice throughout the duration of more than 200 jury trials.
In recognition of 32 years of service to the state and its citizens as a prosecuting attorney and following a long string of successful convictions in a majority of those, Fitzgerald has earned the honor of being named 2012 State of South Dakota Prosecutor of the Year for 2012 by the South Dakota Attorney’s Association.
The award is presented annually to a South Dakota prosecutor who has rendered exceptional prosecutorial service to citizens of South Dakota and to the association.
When this esteemed attorney accepted his award, displaying his strong public speaking skills and comfort at the podium, he also demonstrated a heartfelt compassion for the victims he advocates for.
Fitzgerald didn’t speak of a nebulous case or lump them all together and speak of generalities. He singled in on one catastrophic event and the human beings that he successfully sought justice for, following an “obstacle” he overcame and expressed his wish to one day speak with the two young Belle Fourche boys who were victims of a drunken driving accident and his desire to tell them how he feels.
“When I leave this world and meet up with the two young boys I didn’t know in this world, Robert Terry, age 9 and Peter Tokley, Jr. age 8, who left this world much too soon when they slid down the hill into the path of a drunk driver,” Fitzgerald started. “I will tell them about the obstacle I overcame and why I did it.”
Fitzgerald later rattled off the date of the incident, March 4, 1989, and stated that sometimes certain cases come to mind and that one came to mind at that certain time.
“It left a lasting impression,” Fitzgerald said. “They were so young, and the case was so tragic.”
The “obstacle” Fitzgerald spoke of was the grand jury that “no billed” the case, saying that the woman shouldn’t be prosecuted. The case was dismissed, but Fitzgerald didn’t give up, pursuing another avenue of justice and prosecuting the case by the facts, with a judge finding probable cause to try the case, which resulted in an ultimate conviction of the drunk driver.
Fitzgerald began prosecuting in 1981 as the Butte County State’s Attorney. On June 1, 1990, he started working as a part-time Deputy State’s Attorney in Lawrence County under State’s Attorney Jeff Bloomberg. On Jan. 19, 1995, Fitzgerald took office as the Lawrence County State’s Attorney, a position he has held since that time.
He has prosecuted just about every type of case imaginable — including death penalty cases. Murderers, rapists, sex offenders, embezzlers, robbers, thieves, burglars, repeat offenders, drug dealers, accessories and many more who violate the law and put their own wants over civilized society have met their match in Fitzgerald.
Of particular note and interest is the Fred Allen Bates, known by many as the “Outlaw” case featured on the cable television show A&E’s Cold Case Files a few years ago. This was a decades-old cold murder case that resulted in Bates being found, arrested and ultimately sent to prison for the murder of David Rose.
Lawrence County Chief Deputy State’s Attorney Amber Richey, who led the charge to nominate Fitzgerald, did so because she believes his dedicated service as a prosecutor to Butte and Lawrence county communities, and his successful prosecution of thousands of cases, made him deserving of nomination.
“I feel John is worthy of the award because he has shown by example to all prosecutors, that although it is not always easy to be a state’s attorney, at the end of the day it is always rewarding to know you are serving the citizens of South Dakota,” Richey said. “He has done this by retrying murder cases, prosecuting cold cases and has continually shown he is never afraid to take the tough cases to trial. In addition, John has always been cognizant of the fact that the tax payers support his office and pay for the cases we prosecute and has been fiscally responsible with that knowledge being under-budget 15 of the 17 years he has been the Lawrence County State’s Attorney.”
Richey pointed out that Fitzgerald has obtained several life sentences on cases from child pornography and sexual assault to homicide and obtained two death sentences — one twice.
“I have been working side-by-side with John for 10 years and have learned more about the law and trial technique than I likely would have from anyone else during the same period of time because he personally tries a substantial number of cases each year,” Richey said. “He has set high standards for himself as a prosecutor, and he is dedicated to providing justice for the citizens of the state. He inspires those of us who work in his office to meet those same expectations and level of dedication, and we are often able to meet those because of his encouragement.”
Richey is also highly thankful for the mentoring Fitzgerald does for countless young prosecutors, including his daughter, Megan Poppen, who is currently a Pennington County Deputy Attorney.
“I can’t help but think that her choice to become a prosecuting attorney, as well as her brother’s choice to become an attorney and her older sister’s choice to attend law school this year, were influenced by watching and admiring what their father did as they grew up,” Richey said.
Poppen’s nomination letter, written on behalf of her father, was read at his award ceremony, wherein she shared the philosophy her father instilled in her.
“We are not only fighting for justice, but for victims,” Poppen wrote. Her father, in fact, is proud of Poppen’s chosen path.
“I’m very proud of all three of my children, in particular Megan, who became a prosecuting attorney, as well,” Fitzgerald said.
At the end of the ceremony, after remembering the two young boys whose fate still haunts him nearly 25 years later, Fitzgerald thanked the hundreds of fellow prosecutors gathered to wish him well.
“Thank you. I am honored and humbly accept your award,” Fitzgerald said.
“I’m very grateful. I’m happy. It’s a big deal. It’s a privilege. I’m proud I got it,” he later added.