South Dakota

Jury sentences man with history of mental illness to death for killing nurse as part of plot to assassinate President Barack Obama


April 15, 2014

A man with a history of mental illness has been sentenced to death by a jury for killing a South Dakota hospice nurse as part of a plot to assassinate President Barack Obama.

James McVay pleaded guilty but mentally ill to murder in 2012 in connection with the stabbing death of 75-year-old Maybelle Schein.

McVay, 43, said he killed Schein and stole her car as part of his plan to drive to Washington and kill the president.

The Sioux Falls jury chose the death penalty, though jurors could have sentenced McVay to life in prison without parole.

Authorities said McVay walked away from a minimum-security prison in July 2011 in Sioux Falls and was mixing cough syrup and alcohol when he climbed under Schein’s slightly open garage door, entered her house, killed her and drove away in her car.

After Schein’s car was reported stolen, police used a tracking service in the vehicle to find McVay on Interstate 90 near Madison, Wisconsin. He was arrested after a brief chase.

Madison Police Officer Kipp Hartman testified that he was trying to get McVay to reveal his name when McVay began saying he ‘killed a little old lady’ in South Dakota and stole her car to get to Washington, D.C., to kill the president.

Prosecutor Aaron McGowan said McVay stabbed Schein nine times, with the final blow cutting her vocal cords and carotid artery, causing her to bleed to death within 16 seconds.

But public defender Traci Smith yesterday said McVay’s characterization by the prosecution as monstrous did not square with the facts of the case or his history, the Argus Leader reported.

Smith said McVay’s mental health was not properly monitored or cared for by the prison staff. She added that McVay poses no threat when his illness is cared for.

‘The state has continually downplayed the effect of mental illness,’ Smith said.

The jury, made up of seven men and five women, agreed last week with prosecutors that McVay’s crime met two aggravating circumstances that would allow the state to impose a death sentence.

The first deemed the offense outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible, or inhuman; the second found that the defendant committed the offense for his own benefit or the benefit of another.

Public defender Amber Eggert during the trial argued before the jury that McVay has suffered from mental illness as well as alcohol and drug issues for much of his life and his life should be spared.

She said that the night before the killing, McVay mixed alcohol with a DXM-based cough syrup, which can cause hallucinations.

McVay said he awoke briefly at 3am to find spiritual entities surrounding him and awoke again hours later to find them still there, telling him to follow through on his plan, she told jurors.

‘That was the sign he was going to get the transportation and the final stuff he needed before going to Washington, D.C.,’ Eggert told the jury.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, earlier this month said the death penalty is traditionally reserved for the worst of the worst, and it’s rare for a state to seek the punishment of death after finding someone guilty but mentally ill.

‘I just don’t know of any cases in which you have (such) a verdict, and then the state still seeks the death penalty,’ he said.

Dieter said the guilty but mentally ill verdict gained popularity in a dozen states as part of the public outcry over John Hinckley being found not guilty by reason of insanity in 1982 in the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan.

The jury on Monday deliberated for a little more than five hours. After the verdict was announced, McGowan said the jury ‘made a brave decision.’

‘I think they made the correct decision,’ McGowan said.

McVay’s defense team did not speak to the media after the hearing. Some of them wept after the verdict was read, news outlets reported.

Three other individuals are on death row in South Dakota: Rodney Berget, Charles Rhines and Briley Piper.

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SOUTH DAKOTA – Death penalty called incentive for Robert


 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.

 Read the letter From Eric Robert to Attorney General Marty Jackley

Read the letter From Eric Robert’s Attorney, Mark Kadi

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.

 

 

South Dakota Supreme Court to hear arguments in appeal by death-row inmate Rodney Berget


October1, 2012 http://www.therepublic.com

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A lawyer for a man who pleaded guilty to killing a prison guard and was sentenced to death earlier this year is appealing the sentence to the South Dakota Supreme Court.

The state Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments Monday in the case of 50-year-old Rodney Berget. Berget pleaded guilty to killing guard Ronald Johnson on his 63rd birthday in April 2011 at the state penitentiary during a botched prison escape. A judge sentenced Berget to die by lethal injection. But Berget’s lawyer is now appealing the sentence.

A second inmate involved in the escape attempt, 50-year-old Eric Robert, is scheduled to die by lethal injection during the week of Oct. 14. A third inmate was sentenced to life in prison for his involvement.

S. DAKOTA – S. Dakota death row inmate says justice will not be served until he is executed


June 18, 2012 : http://www.therepublic.com

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A convicted murderer said in a letter written from death row that the South Dakota Supreme Court owes it not only to him but to the family of the prison guard he killed to allow his execution to take place in a timely manner. It’s the only way, he said, the guard’s family can get justice.

PHOTO: FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2011, file photo Eric Robert appears during a hearing in Sioux Falls, S.D. Robert pleaded guilty to killing Ron Johnson during a botched prison escape at the South Dakota State Penitentiary and asked to be put to death. A judge determined in October that the crime merited the death sentence, and Robert was scheduled for execution the week of May 13 but the state Supreme Court postponed the date in February to allow more time for a mandatory review to make sure the death penalty was proper, even though Robert hadn't appealed the conviction or sentence. The review could take up to two years. (AP Photo/Argus Leader, Emily Spartz, File)

Eric Robert, 50, pleaded guilty to killing Ron Johnson during a botched prison escape at the South Dakota State Penitentiary and asked to be put to death. A judge determined in October that thecrime merited the death sentence, and Robert was scheduled for execution the week of May 13.

But the state Supreme Court postponed the date in February to allow more time for a mandatory review to make sure the death penalty was proper, even though Robert hadn’t appealed the conviction or sentence. The review could take up to two years.

In a three-page letter to The Associated Press, Robert detailed why he believes the death sentence is appropriate in his case and described his aggravation with the delay. The letter represented Robert’s first public comments since his October sentencing.

He said justice works differently in death penalty cases than in others.

“Victims of non-capital offenses receive their justice when the perpetrator is placed in custody. Victims in capital cases receive their justice when the perpetrator is executed. Give the Ron Johnson family their justice, they have been forced to wait too long. I finish where I started — I deserve to die,” he said, alluding to a statement he read during his trial that started with “I deserve to die.”

Robert, a chemist who worked for the Environmental Protection Agency before overseeing a city water treatment department, was serving an 80-year-sentence on a kidnapping conviction when he attempted to escape April 12, 2011, with inmate Rodney Berget.

Robert contends he was drunk and trying to rob an 18-year-old woman of $200, not sexually assault her, in the kidnapping case. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison and would not have been eligible for parole until he was 83. He focused obsessively on getting his sentence reduced, but his appeal was denied in 2009, leading to what the judge at his death penalty trial called an “internal war” that eventually left Johnson dead.

Johnson was working alone on the morning of his death — also his 63rd birthday — in a part of the prison known as Pheasantland Industries, where inmates work on upholstery, signs, custom furniture and other projects. Prosecutors said after the inmates killed Johnson, Robert put on the guard’s uniform and tried to push a large box on a cart containing Berget to the prison gate. The inmates were apprehended before leaving the grounds.

In his letter, Robert noted that everyone agrees he is mentally competent.

“Yet, as recently as May 8, 2012, the (South Dakota Supreme Court) was still nosing around this issue. They just can’t seem to fathom that a defendant would accept a just fate,” he wrote, later adding he has a right to plead guilty and receive the death penalty. “I am free to admit my guilt, as well as acknowledge and accept society’s punishment just as I am free to proclaim innocence in defiance of a verdict. I believe that the sentence of death is justly deserved in any murder and should be carried out.”

Robert said the issue at hand is not about him wanting to die. Instead, it’s about the Legislature providing the South DakotaSupreme Court with adequate guidance on how to handle a sentence review when there’s no appeal.

In court briefs recently filed by his lawyer, Robert proposed the Legislature consider changes to the law, allowing death penalty proceedings to be given priority in the state Supreme Court or, absent an appeal, requiring the court to review the case in a set number of days before the execution date.

The briefs noted the state Supreme Court has reviewed numerous cases, including a civil dispute between actor Kevin Costner and an artist about whether sculptures were appropriately displayed at a Deadwood resort, while Robert’s case is still pending.

The justices noted in their February decision that unless a proper review is done before Robert is killed, the execution could be found unconstitutional under death penalty guidelines established by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The other inmate who tried to escape, Berget, 50, also pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death, although he is now appealing both his conviction and sentence. A third inmate, Michael Nordman, 47, was given a life sentence for providing the plastic wrap and pipe used in the slaying.

The penitentiary boosted security after Johnson’s death, including adding officers, installing more security cameras and mandating body alarm “panic buttons” for staff.

SOUTH DAKOTA – SD death row inmate asks for execution to proceed – Eric Robert


June 13, 2012 Source : http://www.mitchellrepublic.com

SIOUX FALLS  — A man sentenced to death for killing a prison guard says the state Supreme Court’s decision to delay his execution to allow for a mandatory review is denying him his constitutional rights.

Eric Robert, 50, will ask the South Dakota Supreme Court to allow his execution to proceed and is proposing legislative changes to prevent similar cases in the future in briefs that are expected to be filed later this week or early next week.

Robert pleaded guilty to killing prison guard Ronald Johnson during a botched prison escape in April 2011. A judge sentenced him to death for the crime last fall, and his execution was set for May. But the South Dakota Supreme Court stayed the execution in February to allow more time for a mandatory review, which could delay the execution for up to two years.

In briefs not yet filed with the court but given to The Associated Press in an email, Mark Kadi, Robert’s lawyer, argues that Robert has a constitutional, due process right to be executed based on the trial court’s order.

“If this process will take up to (two) years as reported, Robert proposes we seek to answer the main underlying issue in this case: does a death row inmate have a constitutional right to die on time as ordered?” Kadi said in an email.

In the briefs, Robert proposed the Legislature consider changes to the law, allowing death penalty proceedings to be given priority in the state Supreme Court or, absent a voluntary appeal, requiring the court to review the case in a set number of days before the execution date.

The briefs noted that during the months since Robert was sentenced, the state Supreme Court has reviewed numerous cases, including civil cases such as the dispute between actor Kevin Costner and an artist about whether sculptures were appropriately displayed at a Deadwood resort.

“These civil cases are undoubtedly important to the parties involved regarding their equitable or monetary interests. Death penalty cases due to their special nature and consequences, however, deserve special consideration,” the brief said.

Attorney General Marty Jackley said he could not comment on the new briefs because he has not yet seen them. Under appellate procedure, the state is only allowed to file one brief, which it has already done.

Robert was serving an 80-year-sentence on a kidnapping conviction when he attempted to escape April 12, 2011, with fellow inmate Rodney Berget.

Johnson was working alone the morning of his death — also his 63rd birthday — 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 inmates killed Johnson, Robert put on Johnson’s uniform and tried to carry a large box toward the prison gate with Berget inside. The inmates were apprehended before leaving the grounds.

Berget also pleaded guilty and has been sentenced to death. Another inmate, Michael Nordman, 47, was given a life sentence for providing the plastic wrap and pipe used in the slaying.

The penitentiary made more than a dozen procedural changes less than a month after Johnson’s death, including adding officers and installing additional security cameras. Other changes, outlined in a 28-page report, included further restricting inmate traffic, strengthening perimeter fencing, improving lighting and mandating body alarm “panic buttons” for staff.

SOUTH DAKOTA – AG asks US Supreme Court to reject Moeller’s death-row appeal


may 7, 2012 source :http://www.mitchellrepublic.com

PIERRE (AP) — South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reject a death row inmate’s plea to overturn his conviction for raping and killing a Sioux Falls girl 22 years ago.

Donald Moeller last month petitioned the court to overturn his conviction based on what he described as incomplete jury instructions. Moeller maintains that the jury that sentenced him to death for the 1990 rape and murder of 9-year-old Becky O’Connell should have been told he would not have been eligible for parole had jurors sentenced him to life in prison. He contends that he might have received the death penalty because jurors falsely thought he could eventually be released on parole if given a life sentence.

Jackley on Monday said that the brief filed by the state in response to Moeller’s claim says jury instructions “fully comply with settled law and constitutional standards.”

Moeller was convicted and sentenced to die in 1997. The state Supreme Court affirmed the sentence, and Moeller has lost appeals on both the state and federal levels.

Moeller was convicted of abducting the girl from a convenience store, driving her to a secluded area, then raping and killing her. Her body was found the next day with a slashed throat and stab wounds.

Moeller initially was convicted in 1992 but the state Supreme Court ruled that improper evidence was used at trial and overturned the conviction.

“Two juries of South Dakota citizens have heard the facts of this case and both unanimously decided that Moeller’s crime warranted a death sentence,” Jackley said in a statement. “Twenty-two years and seven appeals to hold Moeller accountable and to await justice for Becky and her family is clearly too long.”

SOUTH DAKOTA – Death penalty delay looms


april, 17, source : http://www.argusleader.com

A federal judge’s ruling in March that the Food and Drug Administration allowed unapproved tranquilizing drugs into the country might delay an execution in South Dakota. But it is not likely to ultimately imperil the death penalty here or in 33 other states.

South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley acknowledged the planned September execution of Rodney Berget might be postponed as the state and federal government work their way through the ramifications of U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon’s ruling regarding the drug sodium thiopental.

Berget was sentenced to death after he and two other inmates were convicted of killing prison guard Ron Johnson during an escape attempt last year at the South Dakota State Penitentiary.

South Dakota is among the states that administer thiopental as a tranquilizer in a series of lethal drugs that also paralyze the lungs and stop the heart. However, U.S. drug companies stopped making thiopental several years ago, leaving an Italian company as the only source for the drug.

The Italian government this year barred the thiopental made there from being used in executions, so American states that use the drug are forced to rely on their existing stockpiles. Now, though, the FDA, is being forced to go after those state stockpiles.

In a federal lawsuit brought by death penalty opponents, Leon ruled the FDA disregarded its responsibility to ensure the safety of imported drugs when it allowed Italian thiopental to be brought into this country.

In response to that, the FDA sent South Dakota a letter April 6 telling it “to make arrangements for the return to the FDA of any foreign-manufactured thiopental in its possession.”

Jackley has refused. He sent a letter back the following day saying the state’s thiopental already has cleared customs and been independently tested to ensure it was pure and adequately potent. He invited the FDA to work with the state on further testing if it has concerns about the thiopental in South Dakota’s hands.

But Jackley is walking a careful middle ground. While acknowledging the FDA’s authority to oversee drugs, he is not ceding the state’s right to have a death penalty.

“The state’s position is we have a duty to carry out a judge’s sentence and to serve justice on behalf of a victim’s family. We would hope the federal agencies appreciate that position and work with us to ensure that carrying out the courts’ sentences is done in a constitutional manner,” Jackley said.

While Berget’s scheduled execution probably could be postponed while the drug issue plays out, the May 13 planned execution of Eric Robert, Berget’s accomplice, already has been pushed back by a state Supreme Court review of his mandatory appeal.

Other inmates on the state’s death row, Donald Moeller, convicted in 1992 of rape and murder, and Charles Rhines, also convicted of murder in 1992, have appeals ongoing and no execution dates have been set for them, according to Jackley.

In the short term, states probably can get around the thiopental issue by resorting to other drugs.

“Twelve states that I am aware of have switched to pentobarbital,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

Jackley notes South Dakota’s death penalty statute is written to give the state wide latitude in the drugs it uses to carry out executions. But Dieter and Joan Fisher, a federal defense lawyer in Sacramento, Calif., who founded a pioneering death penalty defense unit in Idaho, suggest the same problem with access in the case of thiopental ultimately could arise with pentobar bital.

Like thiopental, it now is manufactured only overseas.

“This does underscore the fact the U.S. is dependent on overseas for certain drugs. That’s a larger problem,” Dieter said.

“Things are changing so quickly on us it’s hard to keep up with state corrections departments,” Fisher said of the ability of states to use new execution drugs and thereby evade defense attorney arguments that the drugs are not being appropriately regulated by the FDA.

However, while she admits the current furor over thiopental is merely “a speed bump” in blocking executions, she differs with Jackley on the larger issue. Death penalty foes and defense lawyers might find challenges over execution drugs a fertile field for lawsuits, said Fisher.

“I suspect there is the potential for more litigation than the attorney general would like,” she said.

S.D. Supreme Court denies Eric Robert’s request for quick execution in guard’s murder


april 12, 2012 source : http://www.argusleader.com

The South Dakota Supreme Court has denied a death row inmate’s request for a quick execution.

Eric Robert, 49, filed a motion to vacate with the court earlier this year after the justices stayed his May execution. The court issued the stay in order to complete the sentence review mandated by South Dakota law in all death penalty cases.

Robert was sentenced to die by lethal injection in October for the murder of corrections officer Ron “R.J.” Johnson, which took place one year ago today.

Robert’s lawyers argued that the Supreme Court did not have the authority to stay an execution where no appeal has been filed. The inmate has not appealed his sentence or asked for clemency from Gov. Dennis Daugaard.

The high court rejected the notion that it doesn’t have the statutory authority to stay a sentence. The justices ruled unanimously that a sentence review is required, and that a stay can be issued as a part of that process.

“While it is true that this proceeding was not initiated by Robert filing a notice of appeal, it is an exercise of this court’s appellate jurisdiction to review the decision of a lower court – a proceeding upon appeal,” Chief Justice David Gilbertson wrote.

Robert and another inmate, 49-year-old Rodney Berget, attacked Johnson from behind with a metal pipe at the South Dakota State Penitentiary’s prison industries building. Johnson, who was filling in for an ill co-worker on his 63rd birthday, was the lone officer on duty that morning.

After beating him to death, Robert put on Johnson’s uniform and Berget climbed into a box atop a wheeled cart.

The inmates were captured as Robert tried to wheel the cart through the prison’s west gate.

Both men have been sentenced to die for the murder.

A third inmate, 47-year-old Michael Nordman, was given a life sentence for his role in the crime. Nordman, who worked in the prison industries building, traded the plastic wrap and pipe for a prison knife.

A dedication ceremony is planned in Sioux Falls today for the prison’s staff training center, which will be renamed in Johnson’s honor.

SOUTH DAKOTA – Eric Robert objects delayed death sentence


SIOUX FALLS, S.D.  – An attorney for a man sentenced to death for the killing of a prison guard is submitting a brief to the South Dakota Supreme Court objecting to the court’s decision to delay the execution.

Eric Robert, 49, pleaded guilty to killing prison guard Ronald Johnson and asked to be executed. His execution was for May, but the South Dakota Supreme Court vacated the execution in February to allow more time for a mandatory review to determine if the sentence is proper.

The review process could delay the execution for possibly two years.

Mark Kadi, Robert’s lawyer, says that while state statute requires a review, it also requires the execution to occur within eight months of the death sentence being handed down.

sourcehttp://www.ksfy.com