October 20,2012 http://www.argusleader.com
The lawyer for a man executed this week says the death penalty created an incentive for his client to murder corrections officer Ronald “R.J.” Johnson.
Mark Kadi, who represented 50-year-old Eric Robert in the capital case, wrote a letter to the Argus Leader saying his client devised an escape plan that involved murder to ensure a death sentence in the event his escape failed.
“The availability of the death penalty encouraged rather than discouraged Robert to commit this crime,” Kadi wrote. “I know this because Eric told me so.”
After the murder in April 2011, Robert quickly pleaded guilty and insisted the judge issue a death penalty, then strongly objected to a mandatory Supreme Court review, which delayed his execution. He wrote a letter to Attorney General Marty Jackley earlier this month encouraging revisions to state law to guarantee a speedy death for a death row inmate who was not fighting it.
Jackley, who prosecuted the case, rejects the notion that Johnson’s murder was anything but a failed, “poorly executed” escape attempt.
He also said the death penalty will protect corrections officers from an inmate who had promised to kill again.
Robert was executed by lethal injection Monday.
Kadi: Failed overdose before escape try
Kadi, who watched the execution, said in his letter that Robert felt “hopeless” behind bars, and that the inmate had attempted suicide by drug overdose before the escape attempt with fellow inmate Rodney Berget.
Robert was serving an 80-year sentence for kidnapping and failed to secure a sentence reduction.
“Robert viewed a life sentence as being identical to a death sentence with the exception that the latter had a set date. Robert believed he needed to get out, one way or the other,” Kadi wrote.
Kadi’s letter says Robert had time to read the state’s death penalty statute and understood that killing a law enforcement officer in an act of escape would satisfy several of the aggravating factors that would justify an escape attempt.
Johnson was not afforded the additional protection the Legislature hoped to provide when adding those provisions to its death penalty statutes, Kadi wrote.
These factors, intended to be a shield, now served to target those the law protects in accordance with their important service to the public,” Kadi said. “The Legislature never intended these factors to be used in such a manner.”
Escape was only goal, Jackley says
Jackley rejects the notion that Robert and Berget’s crime was a suicidal act. Both men had escape histories, he said, and he contends escape alone was the goal.
“All the evidence in the case points to this being a poorly planned, poorly executed escape attempt,” Jackley said.
The attorney general also took issue with the notion that the death penalty does not provide a deterrent, particularly in Robert’s case. Robert said he would kill again if he weren’t executed.
“I can’t say if the death penalty will deter others from committing crimes in the future, but it deterred Eric Robert from committing any other crimes,” Jackley said.
Removing danger to prison staff
Future dangerousness framed key portions of Jackley’s argument for a death sentence in both Robert and Berget’s pre-sentence hearings. Berget also was sentenced to death for the crime.
Associate Warden Troy Ponto testified at Berget’s hearing that inmates segregated from the rest of the population can pose dangers during their daily interactions with officers.
Maximum security inmates are guarded by three officers any time their door is open.
“When we bring out inmates out of their cell, whether it be for a walk-through for medical, inmates have attempted to head-butt staff, punching them, kicking them,” Ponto said.
“We have good policies in place, but there is a risk when we take some of these guys out.”
Certain situations present further potential for violence. An inmate on a hunger strike would require additional interaction with medical staff, for example.
Robert and Berget both went on a hunger strike at the Minnehaha County Jail in the months after the murder of Johnson.
Ponto also said inmates are evaluated every 90 days to determine whether they should stay in segregation.
Johnson’s murder prompted a tightening of security measures at the prison. Lynette Johnson, Ron Johnson’s widow, said after Robert’s execution Monday night that “more needs to be done” to protect the officers at the penitentiary.
Speedy executions such as Robert’s rare
Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the idea of an inmate committing a crime to earn a death sentence is highly unusual but not unheard of.
“Some believe that (serial killer) Ted Bundy deliberately went to Florida and committed murders because that was the state that was most likely to execute him,” Dieter said. “He was offered a plea bargain sparing his life, but he turned it down.”
Gary Gilmore, the first person executed following the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, volunteered for execution and was hanged three months from his sentence.
Robert’s explicit statement about his wish to die makes the case stand out, Dieter said.
The speed of Robert’s execution stands out as well. Of the 32 executions in the U.S. this year, Robert’s is the only one that happened within a year of the sentence. The next-shortest delay was six years.
The average wait time so far is 17 years.
Robert’s body was claimed by his family, Department of Corrections spokesman Michael Winder said.