South Dakota State Penitentiary

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

June 18, 2012 :

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 – Two brothers sentenced to death in separate states

May 27, source :

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – Rodney Berget lives in a single cell on South Dakota’s death row, rarely leaving the tiny room where he awaits execution for bludgeoning a prison guard to death with a pipe during an attempted escape.

For Berget’s immediate family, his fate is somewhat familiar. He is the second member of the clan to be sentenced to death. His older brother was convicted in 1987 of killing a man for his car. Roger Berget spent 13 years on Oklahoma’s death row until his execution in 2000 at age 39.

The Bergets are not the first pair of siblings to be condemned. Record books reveal at least three cases of brothers who conspired to commit crimes and both got the death penalty. But these two stand out because their crimes were separated by more than 600 miles and 25 years.

“To have it in different states in different crimes is some sort of commentary on the family there,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks death penalty trends.

The siblings’ journey from the poverty of their South Dakota childhood to stormy, crime-ridden adult lives shows the far-reaching effects of a damaged upbringing — and the years of havoc wrought by two men who developed what the courts called a wanton disregard for human life.

Rodney Berget is scheduled to die later this year, potentially ending the odyssey that began when the two boys were born into a family that already had four kids.

A former prison principal described Rodney as a “throwaway kid” who never had a chance at a productive life. A lawyer for Roger recalled him as an “ugly duckling” with little family support.

The boys were born after the family moved from their failed farm in rural South Dakota to Aberdeen, a city about 20 miles away. Roger arrived in 1960. Rodney came along two years later.

His farming dreams dashed, patriarch Benford Berget went to work for the state highway department. Rosemary Berget took a night job as a bar manager at the local Holiday Inn.

The loss of the farm and the new city life seemed to strain the family and the couple’s marriage. When the family moved to town, “things kind of fell apart,” Bonnie Engelhart, the eldest Berget sibling, testified in 1987.

Benford Berget, away on business, was rarely around. When he was home, he drank and become physically abusive, lawyers for the brothers later said.

By the 1970s, the couple divorced, and Roger and Rodney started getting into trouble. Roger skipped school. Rodney started stealing. Soon, they were taking cars. Both went to prison for the first time as teens.

Roger Berget enjoyed a rare period of freedom in 1982 and met a woman while hitchhiking. The two started a relationship, and the woman gave birth to a child the next year. But Roger didn’t get to see his son often because he was soon behind bars again, this time in Oklahoma. And for a far more sinister crime.

Roger and a friend named Michael Smith had decided to steal a random car from outside an Oklahoma City grocery store. The two men spotted 33-year-old Rick Patterson leaving the store on an October night in 1985. After abducting him at gunpoint, they put Patterson in the trunk and concluded he would have to be killed to prevent him from identifying his captors.

They drove the car to a deserted spot outside the city and shot Patterson in the back of the head and neck, blowing away the lower half of his face.

A year later, Berget pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to death on March 12, 1987. An appeals court threw out a death sentence for Smith, who was later sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Less than three months after Roger was sentenced to death, Rodney Berget, then 25 and serving time for grand theft and escape, joined five other inmates in breaking out of the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls.

The men greased their bodies with lotion, slipped through a hole in an air vent and then cut through window bars in an auto body shop at the prison. Berget was a fugitive for more than a month.

Thirteen years passed before Roger Berget was executed by lethal injection on June 8, 2000. His younger brother was still in prison in South Dakota.

Then in 2002, the younger Berget was released. His sister and her husband threw Rodney his first-ever birthday party when he turned 40.

But the good days were numbered because a year later, he was sentenced to life in prison for attempted murder and kidnapping. He headed back to the South Dakota State Penitentiary — this time for good.

Then Rodney got to talking with a fellow inmate named Eric Robert about a goal they shared: to escape — or die trying.

The plan was months in the making. The inmates figured they would corner a solitary guard — any guard would do — and beat him with a pipe before covering his face with plastic wrap.

Once the guard was dead, Robert would put on the dead man’s uniform and push a box with Berget inside as the prison gates opened for a daily delivery. The two would slip through the walls unnoticed.

On the morning of April 12, 2011, the timing seemed perfect. Ronald “R.J.” Johnson was alone in a part of the prison where inmates work on upholstery, signs, custom furniture and other projects. Johnson wasn’t supposed to be working that day — it was his 63rd birthday. But he agreed to come in because of a scheduling change.

After attacking Johnson, Robert and Berget made it outside one gate. But they were stopped by another guard before they could complete their escape through the second gate. Both pleaded guilty.

In a statement to a judge, Rodney acknowledged he deserved to die.

“I knew what I was doing, and I continued to do it,” Berget said. “I destroyed a family. I took away a father, a husband, a grandpa.”

His execution, scheduled for September, is likely to be delayed to allow the State Supreme Court time to conduct a mandatory review.

Rodney Berget’s lawyer, Jeff Larson, has declined to comment on the case outside of court. Rodney did not respond to letters sent to the penitentiary.

The few members of the Berget family who survive are reluctant to talk about how seemingly normal boys turned into petty criminals and then into convicted killers of the rarest kind: brothers sentenced to death.

Dieter, of the Death Penalty Information Center, said some families of the condemned remain involved in appeals. But others see no reason to preserve connections.

“There’s no light at the end of it,” he said. “What happens at the end is execution.”

SOUTH DAKOTA – Death penalty delay looms

april, 17, source :

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 :

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.