South Dakota executes inmate who killed prison guard in 2011

DAVE KOLPACK and JAMES NORD

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — A South Dakota inmate was executed Monday for killing a prison guard in a failed escape seven years ago in the state's first execution since 2012.

Rodney Berget, 56, was put to death for the 2011 slaying of Ronald "R.J." Johnson, who was beaten with a pipe and had his head covered in plastic wrap at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls. It was the state's fourth execution since it reinstituted the death penalty in the late 1970s, and the first since 2012.

Berget was serving a life sentence for attempted murder and kidnapping when he and another inmate, Eric Robert, attacked Johnson on April 12, 2011, in a part of the penitentiary known as Pheasantland Industries, where inmates work on upholstery, signs, furniture and other projects. After Johnson was beaten, Robert put on Johnson's pants, hat and jacket and pushed a cart loaded with two boxes, one with Berget inside, toward the exits. They made it outside one gate but were stopped by another guard before they could complete their escape through a second gate. Berget admitted to his role in the slaying.

Robert was executed on Oct. 15, 2012. The last execution in South Dakota was on Oct. 30, 2012.

Berget's mental status and death penalty eligibility played a role in court delays. Berget in 2016 appealed his death sentence, but later asked to withdraw the appeal against his lawyers' advice. Berget wrote to a judge saying he thought the death penalty would be overturned and that he couldn't imagine spending "another 30 years in a cage doing a life sentence."

Johnson was slain on his 63rd birthday and as he was nearing the end of a nearly 24-year career as a guard.

His widow, Lynette Johnson, sized down R.J.'s wedding ring and now wears it next to her own; she keeps his watch — its hands frozen at the time he was attacked — in a clear case next to photos above her fireplace.

"He was so kind," she told the Argus Leader . "He didn't have a bad word to say about anybody."

The Department of Corrections planned to use a single drug. Policy calls for either sodium thiopental or pentobarbital. Pentobarbital was used in the state's last two executions.

South Dakota has not had issues with obtaining the drugs it needs, as some other states have, perhaps because the state shrouds some details in secrecy. Lawmakers in 2013 approved hiding the identities of its suppliers.

A post-execution media briefing with witnesses was to be held on prison grounds at a guard training academy that was named for Johnson after his death.

Berget was the second member of his family to be executed. His older brother, Roger, was executed in Oklahoma in 2000 for killing a man to steal his car.

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For the latest updates on Berget's execution: https://bit.ly/2JmEL7S