In her first day presiding over the bi-weekly criminal court docket in Pierre, new state Circuit Judge Bridget Mayer was quick to seek counsel from attorneys from both sides and from court officers as to process and procedure on Tuesday.
But as a veteran prosecutor with 30 years of experience as an assistant attorney general for the state, Mayer seemed pretty clear about the basics and shook one convicted woman-beater with her sharp judgment.
Mayer was named in March by Gov. Kristi Noem to succeed Judge John Brown who retired June 8. She grew up in Jefferson, South Dakota.
As a state prosecutor, she has handled some high profile cases in Pierre, including the drugs and child pornography case of Hunter Canode who was sent to prison earlier this year.
Mayer also helped prosecute Flint Dahl, the Fort Pierre man who in 2009 rode and injured a horse in a case that received national attention because of its unusual nature.
On Tuesday, June 11, Mayer took on her new role as judge, taking first-time pleas from defendants being arraigned and pronouncing sentences on others who had been convicted under Judge Brown, or Judge Mark Barnett, who retired in March.
It was a long day with 31 defendants with about 44 case files of crimes charged among them.
By early afternoon, Mayer smiled at one point, admitting she wasn’t sure if she had just taken one man’s plea or not, and had the attorneys prompt her.
But she was fairly keen and unrelenting about the larger issues at hand, as Michael Ranschau learned.
Ranschau showed up to be sentenced on two files, one from 2018 and one from this year. He was charged with assaulting a woman with whom he was in a relationship in 2018.
He came to court well-dressed, in a bright blue shirt, long-sleeved with a collar, and dark pants. He has worked as a bartender in Fort Pierre recently, according to his social media postings.
His defense attorney, Tara Adamski, told Judge Mayer that Ranschau has been working in Sioux Falls since he was arrested last year on the assault charge. He has family, including his children, in Sioux Falls and plans to live there, Adamski said.
So he was asking “the court to grant him probation so he can remain employed,” Adamski told Mayer. “To sum this up,” Adamski said of his plea deal, Ranschau was in “a bad break up.” He had contact with his victim several times, violating a no-contact order.
But he wants to be able to move on from this situation,” Adamski said. “He has certainly learned from this.”
Mayer asked Ranschau if he wished to say anything.
“It was just a bad ordeal for both of us,” Ranschau said. “I’m sorry the whole thing happened.”
Hughes County State’s Attorney Roxanne Hammond told Mayer she rarely had seen a case of domestic violence where the perpetrator had shown “such a complete lack of taking responsibility.”
“He shows no remorse,” Hammond said. “His recounting of the events does not match with her injuries.”
So the prosecutor asked for 60 days in jail for Ranschau, and then said the victim was in court and had a statement.
Mayer asked the woman to give her statement.
Standing up in the first row of the gallery where she was sitting with family members, the woman told Mayer she had said what she wanted to say in the written statement she gave the judge.
She also wanted restitution for her expensive smart phone and for missing paychecks because of missing work because of her injuries from Ranschau’s assault, the woman said.
Mayer asked about the woman’s request for $1,728 for “lost wages.”
Adamski said she had not received paperwork about such an amount.
Mayer told Ranschau that he had first been charged with a class 3 felony assault that carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. But he had reached a plea agreement reducing that charge to class 6 felony, with a top sentence of two years in prison.
“You have received a lot of leniency,” the judge told Ranschau, seeming to wonder if Ranschau deserved it.
“Have you seen those photos?” she asked Ranschau sharply about evidence of the injuries to the victim.
“Yeah, I have seen those photos,” he said. “But the day before . . .”
Mayer cut him off quickly: “I don’t want to hear it. . . . That body was bruised almost head to toe.”
It seemed to dawn suddenly on Ranschau that this was not going as he thought it would, when even the prosecutor who was obviously not buying his story had asked for 60 days of jail time.
He was going to be sentenced to two years in the state penitentiary, Mayer told him.
Ranschau seemed visibly shaken. His right arm, propped on the defense table, began to tremble.
Ranschau had violated court orders, she told him “What are you, almost 40?” He nodded.
“For you to say, ‘We both got mad and so I left.’ You left after you beat the crap out of her. Look how little she is, and you are good-sized. You said ‘She bit me.’ Well, I would have bit you too. This is unacceptable.”
He had a history of assault, Mayer told Ranschau.
“You are almost 40 years old and you continue to exhibit; this kind of violence.”
In his interviews with court services for his pre-sentence investigation, he continued to blame the victim of his attacks, Mayer said.
“She had to take time off work so people wouldn’t see how badly bruised she was,” Mayer told Ranschau. “Nobody should have to live through this kind of fear.”
She ordered him to pay more than $2,000 in restitution to the woman he had admitted assaulting.
Mayer then changed her tone, and told Ranschau that she could see he was a good worker and had children he wanted to support. She urged him to take advantage of programs available in prison.
“I wish you well. You will come up for parole . . . I really want you to get a job.”
Under state sentencing guidelines, with his lack of a serious criminal history, Ranschau should be eligible for parole after a year or less behind bars.
She ordered him remanded to jail to await transfer to the prison in Sioux Falls.
A deputy handcuffed him and led him to the jury box to await a ride to the Hughes County Jail.
Ranschau seemed stunned. He turned his chair toward the wall and looked down without moving for 10 minutes or so before he was led out of the courtroom.