SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A South Dakota inmate who acknowledged killing a state penitentiary guard in a failed escape attempt asked a judge on Wednesday to sentence him to death, saying his one regret is that he did not kill another officer and that he will kill again.
Eric Robert, 49, pleaded guilty in September to killing Ronald "R.J." Johnson on April 12 – Johnson's birthday – in an attempt to sneak past other security. Robert waived his right to a jury trial and said he wanted to be put to death, but Second Circuit Judge Bradley Zell said the state still had to prove the death penalty is warranted. Robert had been serving an 80-year-sentence on a kidnapping conviction when he attempted to escape with Rodney Berget, 49.
Robert told Zell during his pre-sentencing hearing that he was so full of anger and hungry for freedom on April 12 that he would have killed anyone who stood in his way.
"Brad Zell, if you stood between me and the door of freedom, I would kill you," Robert said.
Robert said the one regret he has from April 12 is that he did not bring the pipe with him to the gate to kill the officer who stopped him. Once he realized his plan was going to fail, Robert said he began climbing up the wall of the prison – not to escape but to try to reach for the rifle of an officer on the lookout.
"I would have shot that weapon until it was empty," he said.
Zell told Robert that wanting to die is not reason enough for the death penalty.
"There are many people who want to die," Zell said, adding that that doesn't count as an aggravating factor.
The judge must find at least one aggravating factor was present during the killing to sentence Robert to death. The state presented five factors during the three-day pre-sentencing hearing: the death of a correctional officer, the manner of death, where and why it occurred, and the defendants' criminal background.
Robert said he was guilty of all five factors and offered a sixth one to the judge – stealing Johnson's uniform, which included his wallet with money inside.
Robert chose not to present mitigating evidence during the hearing – including time as a little league coach and EMT – that could have swayed the judge to sentence him to life in prison. His good deeds are irrelevant now, he said.
"That person that did good no longer exists," Robert said.
Robert, sitting next to one of his lawyers and wearing an orange jumpsuit with his feet and hands shackled, ended his statement by saying that his death will not bring Johnson back, but it will start the healing process for his family. Robert then wiped away a tear.
But one of Robert's defense lawyers, Mark Kadi, said his client did take issue with being characterized as a sexual predator stemming from a kidnapping conviction in 2005. Robert contends he kidnapped the 18-year-old girl to rob her, not sexually assault her.
Lynette Johnson, Ronald Johnson's widow, broke down in tears and had to be escorted off the witness stand as she testified about how her life has been ruined because of Robert's actions on April 12. In their 34 years together, they spent a total of six nights apart, she said.
"We weren't done," she said. "We weren't done living. He wasn't done living with me."
Lynette Johnson called Robert "evil" and a "coward" and has a hard time responding when one of her six grandchildren ask about their papa.
"He decided to take him away from me," she said as she looked directly at Robert. "You are a coward."
Berget, who has pleaded not guilty to the slaying, also faces the death penalty. His trial is scheduled to start Jan. 30. A third inmate, Michael J. Nordman, 47, was charged with supplying some of the items used in the killing. Prosecutors have not said whether they will seek the death penalty for Nordman.
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