A South Dakota inmate was sentenced to death Thursday for killing a prison guard by bashing him with a pipe, covering his mouth with plastic wrap and then wearing the dead man's uniform during an attempt to escape.
Eric Robert, 49, had pleaded guilty in September to killing Ronald "R.J." Johnson on April 12 — Johnson's birthday — as he tried to sneak past other security. Robert waived his right to a jury trial and had asked the judge to sentence him to death, saying his one regret was that he did not kill another officer and that he will kill again.
Second Circuit Judge Bradley Zell said Thursday that Robert's attack on Johnson went beyond trying to incapacitate him and Robert showed "extreme anger to the point of hatred."
Robert nodded when the judge said he was not likely to be rehabilitated, and that his need for control would lead him to kill again. He had told Zell during his pre-sentencing hearing that he was so full of anger and hungry for freedom the day of the escape attempt 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 he was sorry 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.
South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley had said during pre-sentencing that the state was seeking the death penalty based on five aggravating factors. They were: the death of a correctional officer, the manner of death, where and why it occurred, and the defendants' criminal background.
Zell had to find at least one was present during the killing to sentence Robert to death.
Jackley, standing in front of Johnson's family while speaking to reporters, said the case shows that the death penalty is reserved for the most heinous crimes.
"It is my position justice has been served in this case," Jackley said.
Mark Kadi, Robert's attorney, said Robert will not take any additional steps to delay the execution, but the state Supreme Court will look over the sentence as part of a mandatory process.
"It's a situation where you see everyone gets what they want, but everyone is miserable," Kadi said.
During the sentencing, Robert was at first stone-faced, but his demeanor began to shift as the judge described in detail how he had been a good student, a diligent worker and a dedicated son to his mother.
Robert's face turned red and he clenched his jaw as he appeared to cry as the judge described him as a man whose life was ruined by his anger and "obsessive compulsive controlling behavior" that "ultimately destroyed any meaningful relationships he had."
Robert had been serving an 80-year-sentence on a kidnapping conviction when he attempted to escape with Rodney Berget, 49. 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.
Jackley said the Robert sentencing will not affect the other two cases.
"It's been a very emotional time for the family and prison staff, and unfortunately that will have to continue," he said.
Officials say they have implemented several changes at the prison since the killing, including adding officers to three areas and installing additional security cameras.
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