Inmate in SD guard killing sentenced to death

AP News
Posted: Oct 27, 2011 4:34 PM
Inmate in SD guard killing sentenced to death

A South Dakota inmate was sentenced to death Thursday for killing a prison guard by bashing him with a pipe, covering his mouth with plastic wrap and then wearing the dead man's uniform during an attempt to escape.

Eric Robert, 49, had pleaded guilty in September to killing Ronald "R.J." Johnson on April 12 _ Johnson's birthday _ as he tried to sneak past other security. Robert waived his right to a jury trial and had asked the judge to sentence him to death, saying his one regret was that he did not kill another officer and that he will kill again.

Second Circuit Judge Bradley Zell, in ordering him to die by lethal injection, said Robert's attack on Johnson went beyond trying to incapacitate him and Robert showed "extreme anger to the point of hatred."

Robert nodded when the judge said he was not likely to be rehabilitated, and that his need for control would lead him to kill again. He had told Zell during his pre-sentencing hearing that he was so full of anger and hungry for freedom the day of the escape attempt that he would have killed anyone who stood in his way.

"Brad Zell, if you stood between me and the door of freedom, I would kill you," Robert said.

Robert said he was sorry he did not bring the pipe with him to the gate to kill the officer who stopped him. Once he realized his plan was going to fail, Robert said he began climbing up the wall of the prison _ not to escape but to try to reach for the rifle of an officer on the lookout.

"I would have shot that weapon until it was empty," he said.

South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley had said during pre-sentencing that the state was seeking the death penalty based on five aggravating factors. They were: the death of a correctional officer, the manner of death, where and why it occurred, and the defendants' criminal background.

Zell had to find at least one was present during the killing to sentence Robert to death.

Jackley, standing in front of Johnson's family while speaking to reporters, said the case shows that the death penalty is reserved for the most heinous crimes.

"It is my position justice has been served in this case," Jackley said.

Mark Kadi, Robert's attorney, said Robert will not take any additional steps to delay the execution, but the state Supreme Court will look over the sentence as part of a mandatory process.

"It's a situation where you see everyone gets what they want, but everyone is still miserable," Kadi said.

During the sentencing, Robert was at first stone-faced, but his demeanor began to shift as the judge described in detail how he had been a good student, a diligent worker and a dedicated son to his mother.

His obsessive personality had worked well in those endeavors, Zell said, but ultimately destroyed him.

Robert's face turned red and he clenched his jaw as he appeared to cry as the judge described him as a man whose life was ruined by his anger and "obsessive compulsive controlling behavior" that "ultimately destroyed any meaningful relationships he had."

Robert, who most recently was head of a city's water treatment department and had previously been a chemist with the Environmental Protection Agency, had more than $200,000 in assets and no debt when he was arrested on kidnapping charges in 2005. Robert contends he was drunk and trying to rob the 18-year-old girl of $200, not sexually assault her. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison and would not have been eligible for parole until he was 83.

Zell said Robert then began focusing obsessively on trying to reduce his sentence, and that an "internal war" began to rage after his sentence reduction was denied in 2009.

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"He was depressed by the fact that he would probably die in prison. He was depressed by the fact that he would never have the opportunity to spend the rest of his life with the most important person in his life, his mother. He was depressed by the fact that his request to be transferred to a facility closer to where his mother lived in Wisconsin was denied," Zell said.

While Robert's rage is in check at the moment, it is a future danger to society, Zell said.

Two other inmates are also charged in the killing. Rodney Berget, 49, who has pleaded not guilty to the slaying, also faces the death penalty. His trial is scheduled to start Jan. 30. A third inmate, Michael J. Nordman, 47, was charged with supplying some of the items used in the killing. Prosecutors have not said whether they will seek the death penalty for Nordman.

Jackley said the Robert sentencing will not affect the other two cases.

Lynette Johnson, Ronald Johnson's widow, called Robert "evil" during her testimony Wednesday asking for the death penalty. She said she has a hard time responding when one of her six grandchildren ask about their papa.

"He decided to take him away from me," she said as she looked directly at Robert. "You are a coward."

Other than when they have been called to testify, Johnson's family members have not commented about the case.

Officials say they have implemented several changes at the prison since the killing, including adding officers to three areas and installing additional security cameras.


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