Inmate pleads guilty in guard's murderSIOUX FALLS (AP) — A South Dakota inmate pleaded guilty Thursday to first-degree murder in the killing of a prison guard during a botched escape attempt and was sentenced to life in prison.
By: KRISTI EATON, The Associated Press
SIOUX FALLS (AP) — A South Dakota inmate pleaded guilty Thursday to first-degree murder in the killing of a prison guard during a botched escape attempt and was sentenced to life in prison.
Michael Nordman, 47, also pleaded guilty to being a habitual offender and felony murder in the slaying of Ronald Johnson.
Second Circuit Judge Bradley Zell ordered Nordman to serve the life term consecutively to a life sentence he was already serving for a 1990 conviction for first-degree rape and child abuse. First-degree murder with at least one aggravating factor carries a maximum sentence of death in South Dakota.
Prosecutors said Nordman supplied the plastic wrap and metal pipe that inmates Eric Robert and Rodney Berget used to suffocate and fatally beat Johnson on April 12 — Johnson's 63rd birthday.
Robert and Berget, both 49, also pleaded guilty to murder in the attack on Johnson at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls. Both men waived their rights to jury trials and were sentenced to death. Robert's execution is set for May, while Berget's has not yet been scheduled.
Asked by Zell if he provided the pipe, Nordman responded, "I made that available, yes."
Nordman, who sat between his two lawyers wearing an orange jumpsuit with his hands shackled, also admitted he pointed to where the plastic wrap could be found.
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.
Johnson's widow, Lynette Johnson, told the court she was angry that Nordman was not sentenced to death like Berget and Robert.
"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," she said, staring intently at Nordman. "Look at me, you're just as responsible as your friends. You killed my husband."
Attorney General Marty Jackley said after the hearing that the plea agreement reached deems Nordman responsible for Johnson's death but less culpable than Berget and Robert.
Zell alluded to Nordman's responsibility when addressing him at the end of the hearing.
"You may not have known how those instruments were going to be used, but you made their availability present for Mr. Berget to use," Zell said, noting that Nordman was aware of Berget's violent past and previous attempts to escape.
The judge 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.
Johnson's family has not spoken publicly about the case outside of court. Jackley, holding hands outside the courtroom with Lynette Johnson and other family members, said they would speak publicly at a later date.
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.