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Berget Death Sentence Upheld

Kealey Bultena

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.

An error during Berget’s first sentencing prompted the state Supreme Court to order a limited resentencing. A judge again gave Berget the death penalty. In this week’s ruling, the state Supreme Court strikes down Berget’s arguments that the court violated his rights by not allowing new mitigating evidence at his resentencing and when he wasn’t in court for the new verdict.

In his latest appeal to the South Dakota Supreme Court, Rodney Berget claims his resentencing should have included new evidence that he’s developed a relationship with his son. State Supreme Court Justice John Konenkamp says Berget should get a new hearing that considers the mitigating evidence.

Four justices override that opinion. Chief Justice David Gilbertson writes that the court considers Berget’s future dangerousness – but it also weighs the fact that Berget was incarcerated at the time of the murder and that he killed a corrections employee. The court also considers that the attack was violent, that he lacks remorse for the victim’s family, that Berget has a history of violence outside of prison… and that a life sentence wouldn’t deter other inmates.

Attorney General Marty Jackley says the state Supreme Court overwhelmingly agrees that the death penalty is an appropriate sentence in Berget’s case.

"It is a divided court in a sense on the new evidence on a 4-1 decision, but overall on the new judge and some of the other issues, it was a unanimous decision," Jackley says.

Those other issues include some of Berget’s previous arguments regarding a fair trial and the fact that the same judge sentenced both men accused of Johnson’s murder. The Justices agree that the lower court did not violate Berget’s rights, and they uphold his death sentence.

Eric Robert pleaded guilty to the murder of Ron Johnson and received a death sentence. He did not appeal, but the Supreme Court was required to review the capital case and upheld the sentence. Robert died by lethal injection in October of 2012.

Read the court's full opinion here.

Kealey Bultena grew up in South Dakota, where her grandparents took advantage of the state’s agriculture at nap time, tricking her into car rides to “go see cows.” Rarely did she stay awake long enough to see the livestock, but now she writes stories about the animals – and the legislature and education and much more. Kealey worked in television for four years while attending the University of South Dakota. She started interning with South Dakota Public Broadcasting in September 2010 and accepted a position with television in 2011. Now Kealey is the radio news producer stationed in Sioux Falls. As a multi-media journalist, Kealey prides herself on the diversity of the stories she tells and the impact her work has on people across the state. Kealey is always searching for new ideas. Let her know of a great story! Find her on Facebook and twitter (@KealeySDPB).
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