South Dakota upholds death penalty for murder of prison guard

Reuters News
Posted: Aug 16, 2012 2:19 PM
South Dakota upholds death penalty for murder of prison guard

(Reuters) - The South Dakota Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the death sentence for an inmate who killed a prison guard during a failed attempt to escape last year and who sought to be put to death.

Eric Robert had pleaded guilty to the first-degree murder of Ronald Johnson, a 23-year veteran correctional officer at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls.

Robert waived his right to a jury's determination of whether the death penalty would be imposed, so it was imposed by a circuit court judge.

According to the South Dakota Supreme Court's unanimous decision, Robert has consistently sought the death penalty, and for the execution come quickly, but this had no impact on the decision.

According to the court's opinion, Robert and another inmate, Rodney Berget, assaulted Johnson with a lead pipe, fracturing his skull in at least three places and exposing part of his brain.

They then wrapped the guard's head in plastic wrap and attempted to escape with Robert dressed in his uniform, assaulting another guard in the process, but were stopped before they could leave the prison.

Robert had been serving an 80-year term for the 2005 kidnapping of a young woman.

In upholding the death sentence, Chief Justice David E. Gilbertson wrote that Robert had planned the escape, including the murder of a guard, for more than a month.

"This was not merely an escape attempt on the spur of the moment where events spiraled out of control," Gilbertson wrote.

The court said Robert's request to die did not influence its decision. "We do not participate in a program of state-assisted suicide," Gilbertson wrote.

Berget also pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death, according to the South Dakota attorney general's office.

(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and David Brunnstrom)