Lynette Johnson has repeatedly said in court that death is the only sentence befitting three inmates charged in the slaying of her prison guard husband during a botched prison escape at the South Dakota State Penitentiary.
Johnson has been a constant presence at every motions hearing. She sits in the same spot, surrounded by family and friends. She wears the same pin, a picture of her husband. She seeks justice for Ron, her husband of 34 years, who was killed on April 12 _ his 63rd birthday.
Inmates Eric Robert and Rodney Berget, both 49, admitted they used a metal pipe to beat Johnson and cover his face with plastic wrap. They were sentenced to death. She got what she wanted.
But that's not the case for the third inmate, Michael Nordman, 47.
In a deal with prosecutors that saved him from a possible death sentence, Nordman on Thursday pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and a felony murder charge of aiding and abetting. First-degree murder with at least one aggravating factor _ such as killing a prison guard _ carries a maximum sentence of death in South Dakota, and Nordman admitted he supplied the pipe to Berget and showed where the plastic wrap could be found.
He was sentenced to life in prison.
"Nordman is responsible for that badly beaten body that is my husband. He may not have had any blood on his uniform ... but he is responsible. He is just as responsible," Lynette Johnson testified Thursday. "As far as I'm concerned, he should be right along with Robert and Berget."
She said that if death is not an option, she wants to make sure Nordman can never be a free man. She pleaded with Second Circuit Judge Bradley Zell to do whatever is necessary to make sure Nordman is never released or left alone with a single prison guard.
"Don't ever let him out. Ever," she said in court.
Johnson was working alone the morning of his death 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 Robert and Berget 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.
By pleading guilty, Nordman admits responsibility but is less culpable than Berget and Robert, South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley said after the hearing.
"This remains a very difficult situation for the family. Certainly they have every reason to have asked to have the same sentence as Robert and Berget," Jackley said. "Mr. Nordman was responsible for his actions, and I believe he was held responsible for the extent that the law could hold him responsible for providing of the pipe and Saran Wrap."
Nordman was already serving a life sentence for a 1990 conviction for first-degree rape and child abuse. The life sentence handed down Thursday will run consecutive to that one.
Zell alluded to Nordman's responsibility in the failed escape attempt at the end of the plea hearing Thursday.
"You may not have known how those instruments were going to be used, but you made their presence available for Mr. Berget to use," Zell said, noting that Nordman was aware of Berget's violent past and previous attempts to escape.
Berget was serving life sentences for attempted murder and kidnapping when he and Robert attempted to escape. Zell sentenced Berget to death Monday, and his execution has not been scheduled. Robert, who was serving an 80-year-sentence on a kidnapping conviction at the time of the slaying, was sentenced to death in October. His execution is set for May.
In sentencing Nordman to life in prison, Zell agreed with lawyers on both sides that Nordman should be considered dangerous and segregated from the rest of the prison, losing the few freedoms available to a prisoner. The decision is ultimately left up to prison officials.
"The loss of the freedoms is warranted by your conduct," Zell said.
Defense lawyers did not address the media after the plea hearing and did not return a phone message seeking comment.
The penitentiary made more than a dozen procedural changes less than a month after Johnson's killing, including adding officers to three areas of the prison and installing additional security cameras. Other changes, outlined in a 28-page report released by the state in May, included further restricting inmate traffic, strengthening perimeter fencing, improving lighting and mandating body alarm "panic buttons" for staff.
Follow Kristi Eaton on Twitter at http://twitter.com/kristieaton