His Brother Was Executed in 2000. He Shared That Fate

Rodney Berget just the 4th man to be executed in South Dakota since 1979
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 29, 2018 8:31 PM CDT
He Was Put to Death Monday, His Brother, 18 Years Ago
In this April 13, 2011 file photo, Rodney Berget, who was convicted of killing a Sioux Falls prison guard during an escape attempt, is escorted to court in Sioux Falls, SD.   (Elisha Page/Argus Leader via AP, File)

Rodney Berget, 56, was put to death by lethal injection Monday night for the 2011 murder of a South Dakota prison guard, marking the state's fourth execution since it reinstated the death penalty in 1979. The last execution took place in 2012. The execution had been slated for 1:30pm but was delayed as the Supreme Court considered whether to stay Berget's execution. Attorney General Marty Jackley announced the decision around 6:30pm. More:

  • The crime: It was April 12, 2011, Ronald "RJ" Johnson's 63rd birthday. He wasn't supposed to be working at the South Dakota State Penitentiary, but he was filling in for a sick co-worker. Berget and Eric Robert had for months plotted their escape, which involved beating a guard, who ended up being Johnson, with a pipe and covering his face with plastic wrap. Robert put on Johnson's uniform and pushed a cart of boxes out of the prison; Berget was in one of them. But things went awry at the second gate, and the men never made it outside the prison. Robert was executed on Oct. 15, 2012, but Berget's case dragged due to his mental status, reports the AP.
  • The Intercept dives deep into whether Berget had an intellectual disability that should have barred him from execution, and opens with a powerful anecdote: Of Juliet Yackel, a woman who had been hired as part of Berget’s state habeas appeal, visiting him and hearing Berget boast of a precious childhood memory—participating in the Special Olympics. That alarmed her, and her investigation into his childhood (he was found to have an IQ of 70 at age 9) convinced her that "something had gone horribly wrong with Berget's defense," as the Intercept puts it, as his intellectual capacity hadn't featured into his trial. But in February, a judge upheld the death sentence.

  • In the lead-up to Berget's execution, the Argus Leader reprinted a 2012 story on Berget that looked at an unusual family detail: Berget's brother Roger was put to death in Oklahoma in 2000 over a fatal carjacking. While the paper noted three other cases in which brothers were sentenced to death, the Berget brothers' crimes "were separated by more than 600 miles and 25 years." More here.
  • Rodney Berget did successfully escape once. In 1987, shortly after his brother received his death sentence in Oklahoma, Berget and four others got out of the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls by lotioning their bodies, sliding through an air vent hole, and busting out of a barred window in the prison's auto body shop. He wasn't recaptured for more than a month.
  • He also legally left prison, thanks to his 2002 release, and celebrated his 40th birthday as a free man. But a year later, he was handed a life sentence over an attempted murder and kidnapping.
  • The AP reports Johnson's widow, Lynette, planned to witness the execution. It adds these two details: that she sized down her husband's wedding ring and wears it beside her own, and that she keeps his watch above the fireplace; its hands stopped at the time of the attack.
  • Berget's last meal, served Sunday evening, included pancakes, waffles, breakfast sausage, scrambled eggs, french fries, Pepsi, and Cherry Nibs licorice.
(More Rodney Berget stories.)

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