SDakota inmate sentenced to death in guard killing

February 6, 2012 - 3:15 PM
Prison Guard Killing

FILE - In this April 13, 2011 file photo, Rodney Berget, accused of killing a South Dakota prison guard during an unsuccessful escape in 2011, is escorted to court in Sioux Falls, SD. A judge on Monday, Feb. 6, 2012, sentenced Berget to death for his part in the murder. (AP Photo/The Argus Leader, Elisha Page, File) NO SALES

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — A judge on Monday sentenced a South Dakota inmate to death for killing a prison guard by bashing him with a pipe and covering his mouth with plastic wrap during a failed escape attempt.

Rodney Berget, 49, pleaded guilty in November to killing Ronald "R.J." Johnson on April 12 — Johnson's birthday. His fellow inmate, Eric Robert, 49, also pleaded guilty in Johnson's death and in October was sentenced to death.

Both men waived their rights to jury trials.

Berget's lawyer described his client's childhood as one dominated by alcoholism and violence, but Second Circuit Judge Bradley Zell said any mitigating factors were outweighed by the depravity of the crime.

"Mr. Berget, may God have mercy on your soul," Zell said before sentencing Berget to die by lethal injection.

Zell had to find at least one of five aggravating factors existed to warrant the death penalty: the death of a correctional officer, the manner of death, where and why it occurred, and the defendants' criminal background.

Berget was serving life sentences for attempted murder and kidnapping. Prosecutors said during the pre-sentencing phase that Berget had tried to escape several times before the April 12 incident.

He was first sent to the South Dakota State Penitentiary as a teenager. Since then, his crimes have become increasing violent, Zell said.

South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley said after the death sentence was handed down that it was the only viable option.

"Rodney Berget has led a life of pain and destruction," Jackley said, surrounded by the family of Ronald Johnson. He said Berget's sentence will act as a deterrent to other inmates who may consider committing similar crimes.

He denied that by executing Berget, the state was simply carrying out the inmate's wish to die.

Johnson's relatives have said they will not comment on the case until a third inmate charged in the attack, Michael Nordman, is brought to trial. Nordman, 47, is charged with supplying the pipe and plastic wrap used in the slaying. Prosecutors have not said if they will seek the death penalty for Nordman.

Berget's lawyer, Jeff Larson, said during his opening statements that his client is "not a monster," and described how Berget had been taken from his mother as a child and placed with his alcoholic father who beat him. Berget is the second person in his family sentenced to die. His older brother, Roger, was executed in 2000 for the 1985 killing of a 33-year-old man in Oklahoma.

In announcing the death sentence, Zell noted that Berget "truly did experience a crummy childhood" and that he had ended up at the State Penitentiary at a young age, but he said those facts do not justify his "extremely violent acts."

"There are many people in this society that have had bad things happen to them but yet have not chosen to live a life of crime or to commit acts of violence on others," Zell said.

Larson left the courthouse after the verdict was read without addressing media.

Johnson was working alone the morning of his death in a part of the prison known as Pheasantland Industries, where inmates work on upholstery, signs, custom furniture and other projects. Prosecutors said that after the two bashed Johnson's head with a pipe and covered his mouth with plastic wrap, Robert put on the guard's uniform and carted a large box toward the prison gate with Berget inside. Both inmates were apprehended before leaving the grounds.

Jackley said Berget's execution should take place in six to eight months after an automatic appeal to the South Dakota Supreme Court takes place. Robert's execution is set for May.

The penitentiary made more than a dozen procedural changes soon after Johnson's killing, including adding officers to three areas of the prison and installing additional security cameras. Other changes outlined in a 28-page report released by the state in May included further restricting inmate traffic, strengthening perimeter fencing, improving lighting and mandating body alarm "panic buttons" for staff.

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