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.
Eric Robert was removed from his holding cell at 9:31 p.m. He wore orange prison pants and a white t-shirt. He was escorted to the execution chamber and transferred to a table where a sheet covered him from the chest down. Department of Corrections spokesman Michael Winder says the leather restraining straps were secured at 9:35 p.m.
"The first IV was started in the right arm at 9:37," Winder says. "The second IV followed at 9:41."
The witnesses were escorted into four viewing rooms at 9:46 p.m., and the warden ordered the curtains open at 9:59 p.m.
"At 10:00 the Secretary of Corrections informed the warden that he was clear to proceed with the execution," Winder says.
Eric Robert was asked if he had any last words. He says, “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.”
Robert’s lawyer is Mark Kadi; he witnessed the execution. He says Eric Robert gave him permission to address some topics after his death. Kadi says the key to the last statement is forgiving the warden.
"That was the one thing left for him to do," Kadi says. "It may seem like a minor odd point for everybody else but from the perspective of a man who has seconds left the last thing he wanted to do was forgive the individual causing the execution, causing his death."
Kadi shared the last meal with Eric Robert Saturday night. Robert had moose track flavored ice cream while Kadi had turtle track. Robert wanted to fast the last forty hours of his life.
The two media witnesses say the last words spoken by Robert were gruff with an emphasis on the word "done." Dave Kolpack with the Associated Press out of Fargo and John Hult with the Argus Leader watched Robert die. They spoke to reporters, and their thoughts seemed scattered as they looked through notes for accuracy. Kolpack and Hult described Robert as expressionless. They say, after the drug was administered, Robert gasped for air and made a snoring sound for about thirty seconds.
"About 10 minutes into the execution, his face turned pale, and it gradually changed colors, and he was purple by the time the execution was over," Kolpack says.
"His eyes remained open from the time of the last breath that we heard until the end, and the assistant coroner tried to close his eyes at one time and they popped back open," Hult says.
D.O.C spokesperson Michael Winder says Robert's time of death was pronounced at 10:24 p.m. and the curtains to the witness rooms were closed at 10:25 p.m.
Outside the prison, several groups that oppose capital punishment gathered near the grounds. They sang and prayed while the wind whipped the rope on a nearby flag pole. Ronald Nesiba is an economics professor at Augustana College. He was one of dozens who showed up for the vigil to oppose capital punishment.
"It does help to be with like-minded people here tonight to simply be in solidarity with others that think the state shouldn’t be taking someone’s life in our name," Nesiba says. "I regret the state of South Dakota is doing this."
Nearby about a dozen supporters of Ron Johnson waved a flag with the former corrections officer’s picture. They circled around the sign that names the training center after RJ in support of his family.
His widow Lynette Johnson spoke with reporters after the execution.
"We know this execution tonight is not going to bring back my husband to me, our children’s father to them, our six grandchildren’s papa to them," Lynette Johnson says.
Her children and their spouses gathered behind her at the podium. She says there is still a long way to go before they gain closure. Though the staff at the penitentiary is safer now with the execution of Eric Robert, but his escape partner Rodney Berget still sits on death row. She says people need to spend time remembering and honoring Ron Johnson.
"None of you will ever know how greatly he is going and is missed," she says. "We stand proud for Ron."
Ronald Johnson turned 63 the day of his murder.