Rodney Berget was convicted of killing a Sioux Falls prison guard during an escape attempt. Picture: Elisha Page/Argus Leader via AP, File
Rodney Berget was convicted of killing a Sioux Falls prison guard during an escape attempt. Picture: Elisha Page/Argus Leader via AP, File

Inmate’s bizarre final words

AN AMERICAN inmate who killed a prison guard during a botched escape was put to death by lethal injection in the US state of South Dakota, on Monday evening local time.

Rodney Berget, 56, received a lethal injection of an undisclosed drug for the 2011 slaying of prison guard Ronald "R.J." Johnson, who was beaten with a pipe and had his head covered in plastic wrap at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls.

Berget has been serving a life sentence for murder and a rape when he killed Mr Johnson.

Berget's execution marked South Dakota first execution since 2012 and was the state's fourth since it reinstituted the death penalty in 1979.

The execution was originally scheduled to be carried out at 1.30pm local time, but was delayed for hours while the US Supreme Court weighed a last-minute legal bid - based on claims Berget was intellectually disabled and legally exempt from punishment - to block it.

But it was to no avail.

A 'PEACEFUL' DEATH

Media witness Don Jorgensen said when Berget was asked if he had any last words, he first joked: "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," Berget said, while appearing to give a peace sign with his left hand.

He didn't apologise to the Johnson family or anyone else for anything he had done.

After the administering of the drug started at 7.25pm, Berget groaned and pushed out his chest. He drifted off and snored briefly before his eyes closed. He was pronounced dead at 7.37pm local time.

The South Dakota Department of Corrections issued a statement on Monday night confirming the execution had taken place in a "professional, humane and dignified manner and in accordance with state law".

Mr Johnson's daughter, Toni Schafer, spoke about the trauma her family has endured since her father's murder, USA Today reports.

"Today was about choices. Berget had choices," Ms Schafer said.

"He chose to be evil ... to get what he wanted no matter what the cost.

"We choose as a family to be better."

Mr Johnson's widow, Lynette, 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.

Rodney Berget, who was convicted of killing a Sioux Falls prison guard during an escape attempt, pictured in 2011. Picture: Elisha Page/Argus Leader via AP.
Rodney Berget, who was convicted of killing a Sioux Falls prison guard during an escape attempt, pictured in 2011. Picture: Elisha Page/Argus Leader via AP.

Berget was serving a life sentence for attempted murder and kidnapping when he and another inmate attacked Mr Johnson on April 12, 2011.

The other inmate, Eric Robert, later pleaded guilty to the murder. The bloody attack took place on the guard's 63rd birthday in a part of the penitentiary known as Pheasantland Industries, where inmates work on upholstery, signs, furniture and other projects.

After Mr Johnson was beaten by the two inmates, they wrapped his head in plastic, then undressed him. Robert put on Mr Johnson's pants, hat and jacket and pushed a cart loaded with two boxes, one with Berget inside, toward the exits.

They made it outside one gate but were stopped by another guard before they could complete their escape through a second gate. Berget admitted to his role in the slaying.

At his trial, Berget said: "I believe I deserve the death penalty for what I have done."

"I knew what I was doing, and I continued to do it," he said.

"I destroyed a family. I took away a father, a husband, a grandpa."

Robert was executed on October 15, 2012. The state put another inmate to death on October 30, 2012, but that was the last one before Berget's.

Mrs Johnson said the executions held her husband's killers - Robert and Berget - accountable, and she asked that people not feel bad for the men.

"They broke his neck, they severed fingers, broke his wrists, he didn't have the back of his head ... that's cruel and unusual punishment," she said following Berget's execution.

Mrs Johnson spoke at a guard training academy that was named in honour of her husband, who was nearing the end of a nearly 24-year career as a guard when he was killed.

Lynette Johnson, second from left, hugs Derrick Schafer and Cindy Schmit before a news conference with her daughter Toni Schafter, right, after Rodney Berget is executed. Picture: Briana Sanchez/The Argus Leader via AP.
Lynette Johnson, second from left, hugs Derrick Schafer and Cindy Schmit before a news conference with her daughter Toni Schafter, right, after Rodney Berget is executed. Picture: Briana Sanchez/The Argus Leader via AP.

Berget's mental status and death penalty eligibility played a role in court delays. In 2016 he appealed his death sentence, but later asked to withdraw the appeal against his lawyers' advice. He wrote to a judge saying he thought the death penalty would be overturned and that he couldn't imagine spending "another 30 years in a cage doing a life sentence".

The Department of Corrections planned to use a single drug to execute Berget. Policy calls for either sodium thiopental or pentobarbital. Pentobarbital was used in the state's last two executions.

South Dakota has not had issues with obtaining the drugs it needs, as some other states have, perhaps because the state shrouds some details in secrecy. In 2013, politicians approved hiding the identities of its suppliers.


NOT THE ONLY ONE

Berget was the second member of his family to be executed. His older brother, Roger, was executed in Oklahoma in 2000 for killing a maths teacher whose car he was trying to steal.

US media said that the two men came from a troubled family rife with alcohol abuse and violence. Their father threw Roger out of the home when he was just 10, Berget's lawyer argued in his defence.

Two lawyers challenged the execution, one arguing against the method of execution itself and the other on the grounds of Berget's mental instability.

An open letter on his behalf was also written by Timothy Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics, arguing Berget suffered from intellectual disability and should not be executed.

Berget competed in the South Dakota Special Olympics as a boy in the early 1970s.

"People with intellectual disabilities are often more likely to be coerced into doing things they do not understand, and are less likely to understand the consequences of their actions," wrote Shriver in the Sioux Falls Argus Reader in his letter outlining Berget's difficult upbringing and the severity of his mental handicap.

"There is no disputing the severity of Berget's actions.

"But for the government to execute him, ignoring compelling evidence of the disability that left Berget unable to steer his turbulent life, or to understand the punishment that awaits him?

"The Constitution, with powerful justification, forbids it."

Toni Schafer, daughter of Ronald “R.J.” Johnson, addresses the media with her family after killer Rodney Berget is executed Monday, October 29, 2018, at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, US. Picture: Briana Sanchez/The Argus Leader via AP.
Toni Schafer, daughter of Ronald “R.J.” Johnson, addresses the media with her family after killer Rodney Berget is executed Monday, October 29, 2018, at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, US. Picture: Briana Sanchez/The Argus Leader via AP.

Opponents of the death penalty gathered for a vigil Monday outside the South Dakota prison, some joining in a circle and singing. Sioux Falls resident Elaine Engelgau, 62, who sat behind a sign attached to a cross reading: "JESUS: HE WITHOUT SIN, CAST THE FIRST STONE," told the Associated Press that she prayed the execution would be halted and for Berget's soul.

"I don't think it's right to kill a person, and I think the citizens of the state of South Dakota are wrong to kill someone," Ms Engelgau, a retired court reporter, said.

Scott Johnson told the Argus Leader that he didn't know R.J. Johnson, but stood across the street in support of the death penalty. He said a prisoner in the penitentiary killed his sister and was sentenced to life without parole.

"I know there's two sides to everything, but I don't understand their side at all," he said.

- With wires