Tania Aesoph was 50 years old and a mother of five when she was murdered in 1999.
She separated from her husband-turned-murderer, David Aesoph, twice — once in 1994 and again in 1999. Both times, she was told because her husband did not want a divorce she would have to prove he had committed extreme cruelty or adultery for a divorce to be granted.
David Aesoph was found guilty of first degree murder in Oct. 2000 and is serving a life sentence in the South Dakota Penitentiary. More details of the case can be found here.
Roger Baron, a University of South Dakota School of Law professor, is advocating for legislation that would no longer require proof of extreme cruelty or adultery for South Dakota couples with only one cooperative partner needed to get divorced.
With permission from her family, Baron is calling the no-fault divorce legislation “Tania’s Law.”
“I followed (the case) closely,” Baron said. “It was just your classic situation where there’s this lady who was a domestic abuse victim and had actually gone to see an attorney twice about what she could do, and the second time she never did file for divorce, (as) she was discouraged because she’d have to testify against her husband and she was fearful of doing that.”
If passed by state legislators during its upcoming session next year, the law would also entitle each partner in the marriage who have been separated for one year the right to a divorce without having to prove adultery or extreme cruelty.
Deb Morris, president of the University of South Dakota Law School’s Domestic Violence, Sexual Violence, and Stalking Project, is part of the group of law students helping Baron with research and gaining support for the bill.
“We need to be able to provide some kind of protection device or mechanism or advocate for those people that can’t or won’t speak for themselves because they’ve been beat down or isolated long enough that they have no power on their own,” Morris said. “What Professor Baron is trying to do is simply give them that hope.”
South Dakota and Mississippi are the only two states in the United States that do not have a no-fault divorce law.
Although Baron has shared his opinion on the need for a no-fault divorce law before, his lobby for change only began after writing a guest editorial for the Argus Leader this October.
Once Baron’s editorial was published, second-year law student Kristian Ellendorf — whose family has various ties to the Aesoph family through community interactions such as church and school — asked some of her family members for Tania Aesoph’s maiden name.
Ellendorf then researched which members of Tania Aesoph’s family were still living in South Dakota. The only immediate relative fitting that description was Roger Buechler, Tania Aesoph’s brother, who lives in Dell Rapids.
“I reached out to him, and I wrote him a letter and told him why I thought about pushing for change in the law,” Baron said. “I thought it’d be nice if we name it Tania’s Law, but I wouldn’t do that without some kind of endorsement from her family.”
Buechler and his wife, Faith, came to USD Oct. 28 to visit Baron, Morris, Ellendorf and Baron’s research assistant, Austin Cutright, a third-year law student, about a course of action.
“They were kind of questioning what our motivations all were being here,” Cutright said. “Then they just kind of opened up and told us about Tania and how the situation unfolded from their perspective, and kind of just left a really powerful impression on I think all of us, just listening to them talk.”
The Buechler’s do not wish to speak with the media.
Baron said he has reached out to the Aesoph’s five children to let them know what he’s doing, but declined to further disclose the nature of their conversations.
“Nobody knew how they were looking at this either — nobody knew their feelings,” Ellendorf said. “So when we spoke with Roger and Faith, we were able to kind of tell where each of the kids were.”
Push toward the Capitol
So far, Baron has been contacting legislators and state officials to gain support in the hopes that a bill will be introduced at the 2015 Legislative Session in Pierre.
“We’re kind of generally mustering up political support for how to best proceed when the Legislature convenes,” Baron said. “Obviously there’s opposition. It’s an uphill battle. So, I’m trying to persuade those who are at least a little bit neutral, hopefully.”
State Representative Ray Ring (S.D.-D) is one politician Baron has been speaking with.
Ring said at this point, he “doesn’t really have a firm stance,” because although he recognizes the problem regarding domestic abuse victims, he is also concerned about protecting marriage.
“From the little bit I’ve looked at, it appears to me there’s some pretty good evidence that adopting the kind of change in our divorce laws that he’s advocating does in fact reduce the amount of abuse, and not a lot of evidence that it has that much of an effect on the number of divorces or on alimony awards,” Ring said. “But I want to look at the research myself, and kind of convince myself before I commit myself.”
Ring said he’s leaning in Baron’s direction, but isn’t entirely decided.
“If I decide that it would definitely be beneficial then sure, I’ll carry the bill,” Ring said.
The South Dakota Network Against Family Violence and Sexual Assault is one group supporting the advancement of a no-fault divorce law in South Dakota.
Executive Director Krista Heeren-Graber said the most dangerous time for domestic abuse victims is when they try to leave their abusive partners.
“We’re all for making it easier,” she said.
Heeren-Graber expressed some concerns about having enough time to educate the public and Legislature about a no-fault law, especially those who oppose it.
State Representative Steve Hickey (SD-R) is one of those in opposition. Hickey said there are other protections for abuse victims in place and has spoken with several divorce attorneys who said divorce hasn’t been an issue that contributes to domestic violence.
“I would oppose efforts to make divorce easier,” Hickey said. “I think divorce is very consequential, especially for kids.”
A no-fault divorce bill may have the opposite effect, Hickey said, as such reasons for divorce would have to be more specific than “irreconcilable differences.”
“I think it has slim chances of passing,” Hickey said.
Hickey plans on doing more research, and is looking forward to possibly debating it.
Ring isn’t as sure about an outcome one way or the other, but said he does know some people who will “fight this to the nail.”
“What we have to do is weigh the balance, as with most things in life. When you get down to the reality, there are tradeoffs here,” Ring said. “One is protecting people from abuse and perhaps even death. On the other side is protecting marriage, which I do think is an important thing.”
Baron said the strong opposition to the law largely has to do with religion. He’s hoping to overcome that with strong research.
“Divorce is not easy. I’ve practiced (law) in a state that had no-fault — I don’t care how easy someone thinks a divorce is, it’s never easy,” Baron said. “The simplest, uncontested divorce is never easy. It’s not something you go to the grocery store and buy, and walk away with.”
Although Baron said advocates for Tania’s Law are facing an “uphill battle,” he’s still hopeful.
“We’ve got lots of hurdles to go through, but if we get enough people on board, it’ll work,” Baron said.
(Photo: University of South Dakota School of Law professor Roger Baron, left, and second-year law student Kristian Ellendorf, right, are advocating for legislation that would no longer require proof of extreme cruelty or adultery for South Dakota couples with only one cooperative partner to get divorced. Malachi Petersen / The Volante)