5 on death row in S.D.
Charles Rhines of Rapid City, convicted in the 1992 stabbing death of Donnivan Schaeffer, 22, during a burglary at a Rapid City doughnut shop. Case has been appealed
Donald Moeller of Sioux Falls, convicted of the 1990 rape and murder of 9-year-old Becky O'Connell of Sioux Falls. Case has been appealed
Briley Piper of Anchorage, Ak., convicted of the 2000 torture murder of Chester Allan Poage, death penalty overturned by SD Supreme Court, reinstated last summer. Execution date not set.
Eric Robert of Sioux Falls, pleaded guilty to murder of Correctional Officer Ronald “R.J.” Johnson last year and sentenced to death in October. Execution set for May
Rodney Berget of Sioux Falls, pleaded guilty to murder of Correctional Officer Ronald “R.J.” Johnson last year and sentenced to death Monday. Execution date not set.
By the end of the year, Eric Robert and Rodney Berget probably will be dead.
The same judge has now sentenced both inmates to death by lethal injection for murdering Corrections Officer Ronald “R.J.” Johnson as he covered a co-worker’s shift on his 63rd birthday, then using his uniform to try to escape from prison.
Both men pleaded guilty to 1st-degree murder last year and told Judge Brad Zell they deserved to die for the crime. Johnson’s family and Attorney General Marty Jackley agreed.
On Monday, Zell issued a death sentence for Berget, just as he had done for Robert last October, pushing the number of inmates on South Dakota’s death row to 5: Berget joins Robert, Donald Moeller, Briley Piper and Charles Rhines.
In a 20-minute hearing before a packed courtroom, Zell read his 14-page written verdict aloud and left Berget with the same parting words he’d used for Robert:
“May God have mercy on your soul,” he said.
Barring intervention by Gov. Dennis Daugaard or an appeal from Berget, the 49-year-old will be put to death in 6 to 8 months.
Berget’s defense lawyer argued all last week that another life sentence for Berget would cause him to suffer more than an execution, and that a death sentence would let other lifers know that killing an officer is a way out.
He also said that Berget is “not a monster,” despite Johnson’s murder, the attempted murder of two others in 2003 and repeated escapes and escape attempts throughout a life of incarceration. A troubled upbringing and failed adulthood clouded his judgment and pushed him to the point of desperation, lawyer Jeff Larson said, a point where he was ready to escape from prison and kill anyone who got in the way.
The judge rejected each argument. Rather, the death penalty will serve as a deterrent to future violence for the man the judge was most concerned about as a future danger: Rodney Berget.
Even if Berget and Robert see execution as a means to freedom from a lifetime at the penitentiary, Zell said, most of their fellow inmates do not.
“This court does not accept the premise that a penalty of death is an incentive for other inmates to commit acts of violence,” Zell said. “The penalty of death has been in existence in this state for a lengthy period of time and this is one of the first cases of its type. If not a deterrent for other inmates, a penalty of death would definitely be a deterrent for Berget in attempting this type of crime again.”
Jackley, who prosecuted the case, said after the hearing that Berget's extensive escape history and violent behavior made death the only appropriate sentence for Johnson’s brutal murder.
“Rodney Berget has led a life of pain and destruction that includes a criminal history of 10 felony convictions,” Jackley said as he stood outside the courtroom with members of Johnson's family, holding the hand of widow Lynette Johnson. “There can really be no conclusion but a proper sentence of death.”
The inmates, both 49, attacked Johnson with a metal pipe as the officer filled in a shift for a co-worker April 12. The inmates wrapped the officer’s head in plastic, after which Robert put on Johnson’s uniform as Berget climbed into a box on a wheeled cart.
The men were questioned and captured as Robert attempted to push the cart through the prison’s west gate. They shook hands before surrendering.
Robert has not appealed his case or asked Daugaard for clemency. His execution is scheduled to take place on the week of May 13.
The Supreme Court automatically reviews death sentences, but only halts an execution if an error in law is found in the proceedings.
Department of Corrections Secretary Denny Kaemingk, who was in the courtroom Monday along with Penitentiary Warden Doug Weber, said only that the DOC is prepared to carry out the sentence.
"Under South Dakota law, the responsibility to carry out a court ordered execution rests with the Department of Corrections,” Kaemingk wrote in an e-mail. “We will be prepared to carry out the order of the court in accordance to state law."
(source: Sioux Falls Argus Leader)