At 10 p.m. Monday, one of South Dakota’s death row inmates faces execution. Eric Robert is scheduled to die by lethal injection at the South Dakota State Penitentiary for killing a corrections officer less than two years ago. Although he has appeal available, Robert has never denied his role in the killing and says he won’t fight the penalty. criminal and legal path to his execution.
Less than one year ago, Judge Bradley Zell sentenced confessed killer Eric Robert to death. The sentencing was the culmination of a trial that revealed grisly details of a corrections officers’ death at the hands of two inmates on April 12, 2011.
"Your honor, I've wanted to plead guilty since the first day I came to court, since April 13th," Robert said. "I was made aware of something called a factual basis that would take time to be generated. It's taken longer than I had hoped to get to this point."
Six months before, Eric Robert was serving time in prison for a kidnapping conviction; he wasn’t eligible for parole for decades. Robert and another inmate, Rodney Berget, hatched an escape plan – a deadly one. In court, Robert said he planned to murder a staff member at the prison, a person he called one of his oppressors. That man was 63-year-old Ronald "RJ" Johnson.
"I incapacitated him by hitting him in the head with a lead, iron pipe and then I put saran wrap over his mouth and nose to stop him from breathing," Robert said.
Robert recounted his path through the prison to the gates, where he and his co-conspirator shook hands when they realized their plan was foiled. Robert called himself the standard for the worst, most aggravating and most deserving of death. He also said he believes, if allowed to live, he’d kill again.
"On the 12th of April, 2011, I would have killed anyone that would have stood in my way between me and freedom," Robert said. "Brad Zell, if you stood between me and the door to freedom, I would kill you. If I sat in your chair, I would execute me. Do the right thing."
Judge Zell listened to inmate’s confession and detailed account of his attempted escape. The judge says the crime showed a mind of “extreme depravity and vengeance.”
"As Robert has stated in court, anyone who would have stood in his way as an oppressor would have died that day," Zell said. "Robert’s internal war, while being held in check at the moment, makes Robert a very dangerous person to the rest of society. The two threads woven through him, obsessive-compulsive controlling behavior and anger, will never change. Robert acknowledges the same."
Zell considered Robert’s threat to other inmates, prison workers and the public. He sentenced Robert to death by lethal injection but made it clear that the inmate’s willingness to die was not a factor in the decision.
During a pre-sentencing hearing, Robert was forced to listen to the impact of his actions. Members of corrections officer RJ Johnson’s family testified. Johnson’s wife, Lynette, said her life was shattered the day Robert murdered her husband.
"That day that the warden called me I had daycare. That’s the last day that I’ve seen my little babies because I don’t do very well. I don’t make it all day without falling apart," Lynette Johnson said.
She sobbed on the stand, and she screamed at Robert for viciously attacking her husband. Johnson’s son, Jesse, told the court that his father was family-focused and his best friend.
"I lost the guy that I looked up to most, the guy that I could call and talk to, the guy that I could just sit right next to and be completely comfortable," Jesse Johnson said.
Both of Johnson’s children explained that their dad was a loving and devoted grandfather who was the rock of the family. They said Johnson’s violent death tore the family apart… and asked the judge to sentence their father’s killer to death. Monday night, their request will be granted.
The South Dakota Supreme Court automatically reviews capital punishment sentences; justices of the court ruled that aggravating factors exist and approve the sentence of death. Robert does have appeals available, but his attorney has repeatedly said the convicted murderer does not want to delay his execution.
Saturday Robert ate a last meal of ice cream. He has chosen to fast ahead of Monday night’s execution.