We’re having some techincal difficulties with our website, so here’s an update on the reversal of Rodney Berget’s death sentence ….
The South Dakota Supreme Court has reversed the death sentence of an inmate who pleaded guilty to killing a senior corrections officer.
The high court ruled that statements made by 50-year-old Rodney Berget during a competency hearing were improperly considered by the judge who sentenced him to death.
Berget pleaded guilty to the murder of Officer Ronald “R.J.” Johnson months after the murder, which was part of an escape attempt on April 12, 2011. His co-defendant, Eric Robert, was executed for the crime in October.
The high court ruled that the judge had properly considered the majority of the evidence in issuing a death sentence to Berget and called the question about statements to the psychiatrist “a close issue.”
Former Chief Justice Robert Miller, who sat in for Justice Lori Wilbur in the case, wrote a dissent stating that he felt the sentence ought to be affirmed.
Berget and Robert killed Johnson with a metal pipe and wrapped his head in plastic that day, after which Robert donned Johnson’s uniform and Berget climbed into a box atop a wheeled cart. The two were captured at the prison’s west gate as Robert was attempting to push the cart off the penitentiary grounds.
Both men pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and waived their right to a trial by jury on the question of a death sentence. Judge Bradley Zell sentenced both men to death in separate hearings.
Robert did not challenge his sentence, which was affirmed by the South Dakota Supreme Court after a mandatory review. He was executed by lethal injection on Oct. 15.
Berget challenged his sentence on the grounds that Judge Zell had considered statements he’d made to a psychiatrist in Dec. 2011 that implied he’d pleaded guilty in part to get a death sentence.
Judge Zell wrote in his verdict that Berget’s acceptance of responsibility for his crime was a mitigating factor weighing against a death sentence, but he also wrote that that acceptance could be seen less as a sign of remorse and more as a sign that Berget wanted to end his own life.
Berget’s lawyer, Jeff Larson of Sioux Falls, said the inclusion of that statement in Zell’s ruling showed that the judge had considered statements that weren’t intended for the court.
“This was a violation of Berget’s right to be free from self-incrimination,” the high court’s ruling states. “We cannot conclude that the use of this statement was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Berget said during his sentence hearing that he deserved a death sentence for killing a “husband, a father, a grandfather,” but did not elaborate on his motivation for making the statement.
Of the 12 issues raised by Berget’s lawyers, however, and the high court held that the court had acted properly in the majority of them. Larson also had challenged the fairness of Berget’s sentence when compared to the crimes of other death row inmates, the fairness of victim statements at the sentence hearing and the validity of Berget’s waiver of a jury for the sentencing phase of his case.
The Supreme Court only found fault with Zell’s consideration of the psychiatrist’s statements.
“I am pleased that our Supreme Court has affirmed that the overwhelming majority of the evidence was properly considered,” said Attorney General Marty Jackley.
The Court reversed the sentence and remanded the case to circuit court for re-sentencing.