SD Supreme Court overturns Berget's death sentence


SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — The South Dakota Supreme Court has overturned a state prison inmate's death sentence for the killing of a prison guard nearly two years ago.

In an opinion released Thursday, the justices said Rodney Berget, 50, must get a new sentencing hearing because the circuit judge who sentenced him to die improperly considered a statement Berget made to a psychiatrist.

The high court said it could not conclude that the use of the statement, in which Berget said he deserves the death penalty for taking Ronald "R.J" Johnson's life and destroying a family, was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

"This statement, while expressing Berget's belief that he deserves the death penalty, does not touch on his motivation for pleading guilty," Chief Justice David Gilbertson wrote.

Berget pleaded guilty to killing Johnson on April 12, 2011 — the prison guard's 63rd birthday — at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls. Circuit Judge Bradley Zell of Sioux Falls sentenced Berget to death, and he appealed the sentence but not the conviction.

Eric Robert, who also pleaded guilty in Johnson's death, was sentenced to death and executed by lethal injection in October. A third inmate, Michael Nordman, was given a life sentence for providing materials used in the slaying.

The high court said the circuit judge improperly considered the statement Berget made to Dr. David Bean during a competency evaluation, which was a violation of Berget's right to be free from self-incrimination. Berget in the statement said he took away a father, a husband and a grandfather.

"They'll never see their father again or husband," Berget is quoted as saying. "He will never walk through that door again. I made sure of that by my actions. I'm not going to beg the Court or ask the Court to spare my life. I believe I deserve the death penalty for what I've done."

The justices sent the case back to circuit court for resentencing without the use of or consideration of the doctor's report, unless Berget opts to call Bean to testify.