SD to seek death penalty in prison killing

State prosecutors said Friday they will seek the death penalty against two inmates accused of killing a correctional officer in what authorities describe as a failed escape attempt at the South Dakota Penitentiary.

Rodney Berget and Eric Robert, both 49, have pleaded not guilty to charges of first-degree murder and felony murder committed during a kidnapping.

Authorities say the two attacked and killed 63-year-old Ronald Johnson in a work area inside the Sioux Falls prison and then used his uniform in an unsuccessful escape attempt April 12.

Attorney General Marty Jackley said the crime fits five of the 10 individual circumstances set out in state law that qualify for the death penalty.

Berget's lawyer, public defender Jeff Larson, declined to comment on the state's court filing.

Robert's lawyer did not immediately return a phone call for comment.

Jackley said it qualifies as a death penalty case because of the inmates' criminal history, the victim was a correctional officer, the death involved torture and aggravated battery, and it occurred in a prison for the purpose of escape.

The attorney general would not disclose discussions he had with Johnson's family about the death penalty.

"The decision was left wholly to the state," Jackley said.

Berget is serving life sentences for attempted murder and kidnapping. Robert is serving an 80-year sentence for kidnapping.

They are being held without bond in the county jail. A July 25 trial is scheduled.

Authorities say Berget and Robert attacked Johnson as he worked alone in a part of the prison where inmates work on upholstery, signs, custom furniture and other projects.

Authorities say Robert put on Johnson's brown pants, hat and lightweight jacket before approaching the prison's west gate with his head down, pushing a cart with two boxes wrapped in packing tape. Berget was hidden inside one of the boxes, according to an investigator's affidavit.

Investigators said the escape attempt was stopped at the gate when a guard became suspicious because Robert didn't swipe an electronic ID card.

The state said it has implemented several changes at the prison, including the installation of more security cameras, restricting inmate traffic, improved lighting and requiring body alarm "panic buttons" for staff.

Two men currently are on death row in South Dakota.