Thursday 21 November 2019

South Dakota executes inmate who killed prison guard

Rodney Berget joked moments before he received a lethal injection.

Rodney Berget (AP)
Rodney Berget (AP)

By Dave Kolpack and James Nord

A South Dakota inmate who killed a guard seven years ago during a failed prison escape has been put to death, marking the state’s first execution since 2012.

Rodney Berget, 56, received a lethal injection of an undisclosed drug for the 2011 killing of Ronald “RJ” Johnson, who was beaten on his 63rd birthday with a pipe and had his head covered in plastic wrap at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls.

Berget’s execution was the state’s fourth since it brought back the death penalty in 1979.

The execution was delayed for hours while the US supreme court weighed a last-minute legal bid to block it.

Berget joked in his last words about the wait, saying: “Sorry for the delay, I got caught in traffic.”

He was soft-spoken and appeared emotional. He also thanked people for their support and mentioned two by name.

“I love you, and I’ll meet you out there,” he said, while appearing to give a peace sign with his left hand.

Toni Schafer hugs her brother Jesse Johnson, left, while their mother, Lynette Johnson, third from left, speaks to the media after Rodney Berget was executed (AP)

After the drug was administered, Berget groaned and pushed out his chest. He drifted off and snored briefly before his eyes closed. He was pronounced dead soon afterwards.

Mr Johnson’s widow, Lynette Johnson, who witnessed the execution, said her husband experienced “cruel and unusual punishment”, but Berget’s lethal injection was “peaceful” and “sterile”.

“What’s embedded in my mind is the crime scene. Ron laid in a pool of blood. His blood was all over that crime scene,” she said. “That’s cruel and unusual punishment.”

She sized down her husband’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.

Berget was serving a life sentence for attempted murder and kidnapping when he and another inmate, Eric Robert, attacked Mr 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.

Robert was executed on October 15 2012. The state also put an inmate to death on October 30 2012, but that was the last execution before Berget’s.

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