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2nd South Dakota inmate sentenced to death in killing of prison guard during failed escape
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) ' A judge on Monday sentenced a South Dakota inmate to death for his part in the killing of a prison guard during an unsuccessful escape attempt.
Rodney Berget, 49, pleaded guilty to killing Ronald "R.J." Johnson on April 12 ' Johnson's birthday ' during the escape attempt with Eric Robert.
Robert also pleaded guilty in Johnson's death and in October was sentenced to death.
South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley said during pre-sentencing that the state was seeking the death penalty based on five aggravating factors. They were: the death of a correctional officer, the manner of death, where and why it occurred, and the defendants' criminal background. Zell had to find at least one was present during the killing to sentence Berget to death.
Berget is serving life sentences for attempted murder and kidnapping. Prosecutors said during the pre-sentencing phase that Berget had tried to escape several times before the April 12 incident.
Berget's lawyer, Jeff Larson, said during his opening statements that his client is "not a monster," and described how Berget had been taken from his mother as a child and placed with his alcoholic father who beat him.
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 the two bashed Johnson's head with a pipe and covered his mouth with plastic wrap, Robert put on the guard's uniform and carted a large box toward the prison gate with Berget inside. Both inmates were apprehended before leaving the grounds.
A third inmate, Michael Nordman, 47, is charged with supplying the pipe and plastic wrap used in the slaying. Prosecutors have not said if they will seek the death penalty for Nordman.
The penitentiary made more than a dozen procedural changes soon 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.
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