death penalty

Kealey Bultena / SDPB

Convicted killer Rodney Berget says he wants to stop an appeal that’s preventing him from being put to death, but his attorney can't support the move. The issues are enough to delay major action in Rodney Berget’s case for a few months.

Rodney Berget was in a Minnehaha County courtroom Friday. He wants to end his execution appeal.

Judge Douglas Hoffman asked if he understood that waiving his rights is a path to execution. Berget responded "yes".

That wasn’t enough for the judge to authorize a path to execution that day.

SD Department of Corrections

Death row inmate Briley Piper was back in court last week in Deadwood. Piper is challenging his incarceration in the South Dakota State Penitentiary, saying his legal counsel was insufficient and he should have been allowed to withdraw his guilty plea.

Lawrence County State's Attorney John Fitzgerald says the hearing lasted all day July 21.

SD Department of Corrections

Charles Russell Rhines has been appealing his death sentence for the past 23 years, but his appeals process is coming to an end. Earlier this week, a federal judge denied Rhines' petition for habeas relief based on his contention that he didn't get sufficient representation from his lawyers. Rhines' next step is the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, if he gets permission from the federal court to once again appeal.

Statehouse Podcast: Medical Marijuana, Death Penalty, Ed Funding

Feb 10, 2016

The Statehouse Podcast for February 10th, 2016 includes coverage of legislation on medical marijuana, the death penalty, education funding, healthcare, sex ed, and abortion.

Kealey Bultena / SDPB

A bill to end the death penalty in South Dakota failed in the state legislature. State Senator Art Rusch, who spent many years as a prosecutor and circuit judge, brought Senate Bill 94 to the House State Affairs Committee Wednesday. 

Testimony on both sides was often emotional. Lynnette Johnson of Sioux Falls lost her husband on his 63rd birthday in 2011.  Ronald “RJ” Johnson was attacked and killed during an escape attempt by two men serving life prison terms.  Johnson’s widow is opposed to repealing executions in the state.

Kealey Bultena / SDPB

A South Dakota death row inmate’s conviction and sentence stand. A ruling from the United States Supreme Court Monday denies Rodney Berget’s request to overturn the state court’s decision. This puts an end to any direct appeals to his murder conviction and capital sentence.

Correctional Officer Ron Johnson died a violent death in May of 2011 when two inmates at the South Dakota State Penitentiary tried to escape from prison. Eric Robert and Rodney Berget were caught, tried, and convicted in the killing.

After legislators killed a bill on Wednesday to eliminate the death penalty in South Dakota, they also killed a bill to limit the death penalty only to offenders who are too dangerous for prison. The bill provided that jurors would have to find that potential for future danger in addition to aggravating factors that currently justify capital punishment.

South Dakota’s death penalty will remain on the books. The Senate State Affairs committee killed a bill calling for the repeal of capital punishment, along with another bill to restrict it. Opponents say the death penalty is revenge rather than justice. But proponents say it assures public safety and acts as a deterrent against future violence by inmates behind prison walls.

The first man found innocent using DNA evidence after being sentenced to death is sharing his story with South Dakotans. Kirk Bloodsworth is telling students at the University of Sioux Falls how he came to find himself convicted of rape and murder and sentenced to die when he had no connection to the crimes. He spent years in a Maryland prison before science proved him not guilty. Now Bloodsworth works to reform the criminal justice system.

"This whole thing started by a next door neighbor saying, ‘The composite sketch looks like my neighbor Kirk,'" Bloodsworth says.

Prison officials say a man convicted of murdering a Sioux Falls woman apparently hanged himself in his cell. Authorities pronounced James McVay dead at the state penitentiary Thursday morning after CPR attempts failed. 

Kealey Bultena / SDPB

South Dakota’s Supreme Court says convicted killer Rodney Berget’s death sentence stands. Berget and Eric Robert were inmates at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in April of 2011. They tried to escape and murdered correctional officer Ron Johnson during their attempt.


For the second time, a convicted killer’s death sentence is in front of South Dakota’s Supreme Court. Rodney Berget won an element of his first appeal to the high court, but his attorney returns with arguments that the process and procedures of his sentencing aren’t fair.

Selecting Jurors in Death Penalty Case

Mar 20, 2014
State of South Dakota

Selection began Wednesday in a Sioux Falls courtroom for jurors who will decide the fate of confessed killer James McVay. The state is seeking the death penalty for McVay who pleaded guilty but mentally ill to first-degree murder in the July 2011 stabbing death of 75 year-old Maybelle Schein. McVay stole Schein’s car and drove it to Madison, Wisconsin where he was apprehended. McVay later told investigators that Schein’s killing was part of a plot to rob and kill his way to Washington, DC where he would assassinate President Obama.

Death Penalty Repeal Fails in Committee

Feb 21, 2014

A proposal to repeal the death penalty in South Dakota narrowly failed Friday morning in committee. Members of House State Affairs heard testimony and debated the measure for more than two hours. The proposed legislation repeals the death penalty, but isn’t retroactive —meaning death sentences imposed prior to July 1, 2014 aren’t affected. It instead replaces capital punishment with life in prison without parole.

The U-S Supreme Court has denied an appeal request from South Dakota Death Row inmate Charles Russell Rhines.  Justices refused to hear Rhines appeals concerning the death penalty and South Dakota’s execution methods.  State Attorney General Marty Jackley says the Court’s decision is major, but Rhines still has some legal challenges available.

With the 2014 legislative session underway, many lawmakers are getting their own agendas and goals organized. Republican State Representative Brock Greenfield says he expects an effort to repeal the death penalty in South Dakota. Greenfield doesn't support the change.

Kealey Bultena / SDPB

Briley Piper’s guilty plea in the killing of Chester Allan Poage stands. The South Dakota Supreme Court says Piper can’t take back his admission that he killed a man more than a decade ago. The decision was released Thursday.

Kealey Bultena / SDPB

A Minnehaha County judge says a confessed murderer won’t have a jury when he’s re-sentenced for the killing of a corrections officer. Rodney Berget admits to murdering Ron "RJ" Johnson during an escape attempt from the South Dakota State Penitentiary on April 12, 2011.

The South Dakota Supreme Court says a lower court shouldn’t have considered a psychiatrist’s testimony when sentencing Berget. Berget pleaded guilty and received a death sentence for the crime.

A South Dakota death row inmate wants a jury to hear his case, and it’s up to the South Dakota Supreme Court to decide if he gets a new trial. The high court entertains arguments that Briley Piper didn’t fully understand how waiving his right to a jury trial impacted his fate.

People Demonstrate For, Against Death Penalty

Nov 2, 2012

Tuesday, groups of people in favor of and opposed to capital punishment peacefully demonstrated outside the South Dakota State Penitentiary. That night, longtime death row inmate Donald Moeller was executed by lethal injection inside the prison.

Below is a slideshow capturing the tone outside as people voiced their opinions about life and death. 

Kealey Bultena / SDPB

A federal judge won't stay the execution of a confessed child killer who's scheduled to die next week. A woman who knows death row inmate Donald Moeller filed paperwork Friday asking the district court to delay the execution and examine Moeller's compentency.

Earlier this month, Donald Moeller asked a federal judge to throw out the only appeal that could have delayed his execution. The judge granted his request.

South Dakota lawyers argue whether a death row inmate’s lethal injection should happen next week. Donald Moeller got his final appeal dismissed earlier this month and says he accepts the death penalty. Now a woman who says she’s Moeller’s friend wants the execution put on hold.

Donna Nichols didn’t appear in federal court, but her lawyer says she’s concerned Donald Moeller isn’t competent to waive his last appeal ahead of his execution. Rapid City lawyer Robert Van Norman says Nichols is Moeller's step-sister.

A South Dakota death row inmate who gave up all of his appeals has to return to federal court next week. That’s because an outside attorney has filed paperwork requesting a judge stay his planned execution.

Monday Donald Moeller must appear before Judge Lawrence Piersol in Sioux Falls. Donna Nichols is listed in court papers as a friend of Moeller’s. She asks the judge to prevent Moeller’s execution by lethal injection, which is scheduled for the week of October 28, 2012.

Execution of Eric Robert

Oct 16, 2012

SDPB News Director was part of the media pool that covered the execution of Eric Robert on Monday night.  Robert had pleaded guilty in the April 12, 2011, slaying of prison guard Ronald Johnson during a failed escape attempt.  Robert asked to be put to death, saying he would kill again.  He was put to death by lethal injection at the State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls.  He was pronounced dead at 10:24 p.m.

People who witnessed the execution of confessed murderer Eric Robert had the opportunity to speak to local media following Monday night's lethal injection. Robert confessed to killing corrections officer Ronald Johnson during a failed escape attempt at the South Dakota State Penitentiary on April 12, 2011. Robert died the night of October 25, 2012. 

Hannah Olsen

The execution of Eric Robert was carried out last night at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls. Robert pleaded guilty to the April 2011 murder of Ronald Johnson during a failed escape attempt. Robert asked to be executed and waived his appeals. Monday's execution was orderly and precise.

The attorney who represented Eric Robert in court throughout his murder trial says he’s willing to talk to the family of his client’s victim. Mark Kadi says, before he died of lethal injection, Robert authorized him to discuss some matters with Ron Johnson’s family.

"If certain details are needed, the Johnson family can, if they want to talk with me, they can. If they want to move on, and I hope they move on, they can do that, too."

Kealey Bultena / SDPB

Four inmates sit on South Dakota’s death row now that convicted murderer Eric Robert is dead after Monday night’s lethal injection. All inmates who face the death penalty get an opportunity to speak last words.

At one minute after 10 p.m. Monday night in the execution chamber, South Dakota State Penitentiary Warden Doug Weber asked Eric Robert if he had any last words.

Robert replied, “In the name of justice and liberty and mercy, I authorize and forgive Warden Douglas Weber to execute me for my crimes. It is done.”

Kealey Bultena

Family members of murder victim Ronald "RJ" Johnson witnessed Eric Robert’s execution by lethal injection.

Johnson’s widow Lynette says her family knows the perpetrator’s death doesn’t bring back the husband, father, and grandfather taken from them on his birthday in April of last year.

"But we do know that the employees of the Department of Corrections and the public in general will be just a little bit safer now," she says. "We need to have more attention focused on the safety of all correctional officers in the state of South Dakota."

A man convicted of a murder that happened less than two years ago is dead following South Dakota’s first execution in five years.

Last fall, prison inmate Eric Robert was found guilty of killing a corrections officer at the state penitentiary in April of 2011. Monday night, prison staff injected pentobarbital into Robert’s body to kill him.

Michael Winder with the South Dakota Department of Corrections says the lethal injection began at 10:01 p.m.