5 convicted murderers sit on South Dakota's death row, but one of the last
added to the state's list of doomed defendants hopes to be the next in line for
Eric Robert, 49, pleaded guilty to killing prison guard Ronald Johnson in an
escape attempt from the South Dakota State Penitentiary, and a circuit judge
sentenced him to death. Robert asked to be executed, but state law still
requires the South Dakota Supreme Court to review the case and determine if the
death sentence is proper.
In most cases, those sentenced to die argue for mercy in appeals that can take
a decade or more as they wind through the state and federal appeals systems.
Those convicted typically request new trials or, at minimum, ask that their
death sentences be commuted to life imprisonment. Robert's is the 1st time the
Supreme Court has dealt with a case in which the convict asked from the start
to be executed.
A lawyer who represented Robert in circuit court has sent the Supreme Court a
letter saying Robert has given up his right to appeal his conviction and
sentence. Robert's execution had been set for some time during the week of May
13, but the Supreme Court has delayed that until it finishes the review
required by state law.
The Supreme Court gave Robert's defense lawyer until April 3 to file a "brief
(or other submission)," but it's unclear what will be filed because Robert is
not contesting his death sentence. The state then has 45 days to file its
initial written arguments in the case, and 45 days after that a written brief
is due from a lawyer appointed as a friend of the court to take an independent
look at the sentence.
Attorney General Marty Jackley said he will file his brief before the deadline
because he wants it filed before the 1-year anniversary of 63-year-old
Johnson's death on April 12.
"The state is going to continue to do everything within its legal power to move
this forward in a timely and responsible fashion," Jackley said. "However, I
respect the legal process must run its course, and I remain confident that the
sentence and ultimate justice will be carried out."
Even though Robert asked the trial judge for the death penalty, South Dakota
law requires the Supreme Court to review that sentence. Jackley said the high
court will examine 3 issues: whether the sentenced was imposed under passion,
prejudice or another improper factor; whether evidence supports the judge's
findings of aggravating circumstances that permit the death penalty, and
whether the sentence is excessive or disproportionate compared to similar
Because Robert is not allowing his defense lawyer to argue against the death
penalty, the high court also appointed Randal Connelly of Rapid City to submit
friend-of-the-court briefs and oral arguments on whether the death penalty is
proper in the case. Connelly said the Supreme Court wants his independent input
on whether the death sentence is appropriate.
Robert was serving an 80-year sentence on a kidnapping conviction when he
attempted to escape with fellow inmate Rodney Berget, 49, and killed Johnson.
The 2 inmates were captured before leaving the prison grounds.
Berget also pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death. He may follow a
traditional appeal that seeks to overturn his sentence.
A 3rd inmate, Michael Nordman, 47, was given a life sentence for providing the
plastic wrap and pipe that Robert and Berget used to kill Johnson.
Jackley is promoting a bill in the Legislature that seeks to limit the number
of appeals death-row inmates can file after their initial appeals are decided.
He noted that 2 of the men on South Dakota's death row are still appealing
their sentences nearly 2 decades after they committed murder.
Donald Moeller, who was sentenced to death for the 1990 rape and killing of
9-year-old Becky O'Connell of Sioux Falls, still has an appeal pending in
federal court. His conviction and sentence have been upheld, but he is arguing
that South Dakota's procedure for lethal injection is unconstitutional.
Charles Russell Rhines has appeals pending in both state and federal courts for
his conviction and death sentence for the 1992 slaying of Donnivan Schaeffer
during the burglary of a Rapid City doughnut shop.
Briley Piper of Anchorage, Alaska, is facing the death penalty for the March
2000 murder of Chester Allan Poage near Spearfish.
(source: Associated Press)