The question in this headline seemed settled until very recently: The answer was a clear yes.
Berget pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the April 12, 2011 killing of Corrections Officer Ronald “R.J.” Johnson, just as his co-defendant Eric Robert had.
Just as Robert had, Berget waived his right to a jury trial on the sentencing phase of the case. With a jury, even one objection to a death sentence would have spared Berget’s life. With a judge, it was up to one person.
Berget was told that by the judge and certainly was told that by his lawyer, veteran public defender Jeff Larson.
So how did we get from that point to this week, during which Mr. Larson pleaded with the South Dakota Supreme Court to remand the case for re-sentencing by saying that his client didn’t get a fair shot at life?
I’m not sure, frankly. Perhaps Berget had a change of heart. Perhaps his desire to die wasn’t as strong as his decision to ask the judge for a sentence would make it appear.
One of Larson’s challenges this week dealt with a statement Berget made during a psychiatric examination, the results of which the state submitted to Judge Brad Zell for consideration against Larson’s wishes.
Click here and scroll to the bottom of the story for a replay of the hearing.
The statement, which Berget allegedly made to the psychiatrist, was that he wanted “to get it over with” - meaning his execution.
Zell wrote that Berget’s acceptance of responsibility for Johnson’s murder would normally qualify as a mitigating factor weighing in favor of a life prison sentence. The statement to the psychiatrist, Zell wrote, tempered his understanding of that acceptance: Berget might only be taking responsibility to speed up his own execution.
Here’s the thing: Berget’s statement to the examining psychiatrist wasn’t the only one Zell might have used to come to that conclusion.
I dug into our audio archives and listened to Berget’s statement to the court again this week. Berget didn’t say much, compared to his co-defendant. But he said enough to reinforce the theme that he wanted the death penalty.
Judge for yourself. Here it is, in its entirety:
“What I would say is that I’m guilty of taking Ronald Johnson’s life. I knew what I was doing on that day I went over to the shops and I continued doing it. I destroyed a family, I took away a father, a husband, a grandpa. They’ll never see their father again, or husband. He’ll never walk through that door again. I made sure of that by my actions. I’m not gonna beg the court or ask the court to spare my life. I believe I deserve the death penalty for what I done.”