Lawyer: Inmate accused in death of guard ‘not a monster’A convicted kidnapper accused in the killing of a South Dakota prison guard is no monster, his attorney said Monday at a pre-sentencing hearing.
By: KRISTI EATON, The Associated Press
A convicted kidnapper accused in the killing of a South Dakota prison guard is no monster, his attorney said Monday at a pre-sentencing hearing.
Rodney Berget, 49, has pleaded guilty to killing Ronald “R.J.” Johnson on April 12 — Johnson’s birthday — during an escape attempt. Eric Robert, also 49, also pleaded guilty in Johnson’s death and in October was sentenced to death.
Both men waived their right to a jury trial.
South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley said during opening statements that he would present five aggravating factors during the hearing, which is expected to last all week.
Second Circuit Judge Bradley Zell must find at least one was present at the time of the killing to sentence Berget to death.
He also can consider mitigating factors when making his decision.
Defense lawyer Jeff Larson acknowledged during his opening statement that there were three aggravating factors present — that Berget had prior convictions, was a prisoner at the time of the killing and that Johnson was a corrections officer — but said he will present mitigating factors that show his client is not a cold-blooded killer.
“Despite all he has been through ... Rodney is not a monster,” he said.
Larson said Berget had been taken from his mother as a child and placed with his father, who was an alcoholic and beat him.
Berget is serving life sentences for attempted murder and kidnapping.
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 the two bashed Johnson’s head with a pipe, covered his mouth with plastic wrap and took his uniform, Robert carted a large box toward the prison gate with Berget inside. Both inmates were apprehended before leaving the grounds.
Zell found at least one aggravating factor was present during Robert’s hearing in October. Robert had made an impassioned plea to Zell to sentence him to death, saying his one regret from April 12 is that he did not kill another officer and that he will kill again.
Many of the same witnesses who testified for the prosecution at the start of Robert’s pre-sentencing took the stand Monday, including Minnehaha County Medical Examiner Kenneth Snell, who said Johnson died from traumatic head injury due to assault.
Johnson did not die right away and the manner of the slaying may have caused pain, Snell testified.
Family members began to weep quietly as prosecutors displayed graphic autopsy photos of Johnson, including close-up pictures of lacerations on his head and hands.
Earlier Monday, Larson had sought to sequester Johnson’s wife, son and daughter because they will later testify at the hearing, but Zell denied the request.
Zell also denied Larson’s request to allow Berget to wear street clothes instead of his orange prison jumpsuit during the hearing.
A third inmate, Michael Nordman, 47, is charged with supplying the pipe and plastic wrap used in the slaying. Prosecutors have not said if they will seek the death penalty for Nordman.
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.