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Inmate serving 175 years dies in South Dakota prison

Ralph Buchhold

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Ralph Buchhold, a Rapid City man serving 175 years for raping a girl from the time she was 11 until she was 15, died Friday, April 12, in the South Dakota prison after an illness, according to Michael Winder, prison spokesman in Pierre.

Buchhold was 63 and had served nearly 15 years of his 175-year sentence set to expire July 2, 2179, according to prison records.

He died in the state penitentiary in Sioux Falls.

His case gained attention not only for the heinous nature of the crimes for which he was convicted, but for the long sentence. He unsuccessfully appealed it as unconstitutionally “cruel and unusual” in part because it was 11 shorter sentences chained into 175 years.

Buchhold was sentenced in September 2005 to the maximum 25 years on one count of second-degree rape of a child under 16; and the maximum 15 years on each of six counts of third-degree rape and four counts of sexual contact with a child under 16.

All 11 counts involved the same victim.

In December 2003, Rapid City police went to Buchhold’s home in response to the report of a rape. The girl, 15, said Buchchold had begun raping her about four years before, when she was 11.

Buchhold denied the girl's account and testified to it at his trial.

But first he went on the run.

A jury indicted him in February 2004 on the charges, and a warrant was issued for his arrest.

But Buchhold left the state to do a “photo shoot,” traveling to several places using assumed names, according to the state Supreme Court's review of the case. Born in Canada, Buchhold tried, while on the run, to arrange to buy a home there using the name Thomas Keyes. But before he got across the border he was arrested in New Jersey on May 14, 2004. He went on trial in July 2005. A jury convicted him a couple weeks later and he was sentenced two months after that.

At the trial, it came out that Buchhold served in the Air Force for several years, often overseas and absent from his family in Rapid City. In 1995, Buchhold was discharged from the Air Force and “joined his family in Rapid City,” according to the Supreme Court's review of the case in their January 2007 decision on his 2006 appeal.

The girl testified the sexual abuse began when she was 11 and became instances of "almost daily" rape until she was 15 and reported it.

Buchhold argued the state circuit court in Rapid City didn’t allow certain of his witnesses to testify and that the prosecution had little physical, forensic evidence, including DNA and relied too much on the girl’s accounts. He testified the girl was “mentally unstable and a habitual liar,” according to the Supreme Court.

Buchhold’s attorneys argued the court in Rapid City disregarded the psychosexual evaluation that found he did not have “a chronic objectively sexual interest in young children,” and was a “low risk for recidivism.”

But the Supreme Court said that the psychosexual evaluator also said Buchhold's “continued denial is viewed as an indicator of his failure to take responsibility for his sexual behavior problems and a lack of forthrightness on this assessment.”

“Thus, the test scores showing Buchhold to be a low risk are of dubious value,” the Supreme Court ruled.

Buchhold said he was wrongly convicted and sentenced separately for both sexual contact and rape — which he argued are “mutually exclusive crimes” — for the same alleged acts or incidents in what his attorneys called a kind of double jeopardy.

Perhaps Buchhold’s key point was that the circuit court, in sentencing him at the age of 50 on 11 counts — none of which carries a life sentence in itself — to the maximum time for each count to be served consecutively in an effective sentence of 175 years with no parole possible for 87.5 years — was a life sentence by subterfuge and “cruel and unusual,” under the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.

The Supreme Court wrote a relatively long response to this argument, citing previous rulings which it said give it discretion to punish a defendant who commits multiple crimes “more severely than a defendant who commits one.”

Even though the girl was the only victim of Buchhold’s crimes, the ruling said, “each instance of sexual abuse was a separate offense committed at different times.”

After describing the emotional and other harm to the girl from Buchhold’s crimes, the Supreme Court said: “We can reasonably conclude that imposition of the maximum sentence in this case for convictions on the individual counts advances, through correction and retribution, the State’s interest in deterring such crimes . . . and is not grossly disproportional . . .”

Chief Justice David Gilbertson wrote the decision denying the appeal, and concurring were Justices John Konenkamp, Steven Zinter and Judith Meierhenry. Only Gilbertson still is on the court.