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Man who killed SD prison guard executed after last-minute appeal rejected

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Rodney Scott Berget was executed at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls on Monday night, Oct. 29, according to media reports

Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch rejected a last-minute appeal based on Berget's mental capabilities. The appeal ran into the evening hours as Berget was originally planned to be executed at 1:30 p.m.

Berget’s last words were, “I love you and I’ll meet your out there,” according to a media witness.

Don Jorgensen of KELO-TV was one of three media witnesses, and said in a press conference after the approximate 7:30 p.m. execution that he noticed one thing was absent from Berget’s last statement.

“I think the only thing that caught me off guard, he was given the chance to say something for his last words and he never did apologize to the family,” Jorgensen said.

Berget began his final words at 7:29 p.m. and made a joke at the beginning, saying “sorry for the delay; I got caught in traffic, “ said Jorgensen, apparently a reference to the Supreme Court delay.

Jorgensen said Berget was very soft spoken, took a couple of deep breaths and appeared to groan twice as he died.

The execution marked the state's first since 2012 and 19th overall in its history.

Berget, 56, who has stood on death row for the past six years, was originally sentenced to death in 2012 for the murder of 63-year-old corrections officer Ronald Johnson in April 2011, but the execution was ultimately nixed after the South Dakota Supreme Court overturned the sentence.

In that instance, Berget argued that his constitutional rights had been violated after a circuit court judge erroneously used a psychiatrist's report as evidence against him, according to court documents.

Johnson was murdered on April 12, 2011, when Berget, along with fellow inmate Eric Robert, plotted an escape plan that involved bludgeoning Johnson with a pipe, stealing his uniform, and climbing into a box placed on a cart that would be escorted by Robert out of the prison. After their foiled attempt, prison staff discovered Johnson's body inside the prison lying on his stomach in a pool of blood with shrink wrap around his head.

Robert, who was serving an 80-year sentence on a kidnapping conviction at the time he and Berget planned their escape, was sentenced to death in 2011 and was executed in 2012.

In 2015, Berget was sentenced to death for a second time, but that process was also dismissed after Berget's mental status was questioned following his lawyer's claim that he suffered from an intellectual disability.

Juliet Yackel, a Chicago-based attorney who was hired as part of Berget's state habeas appeal, discovered public welfare records that were missed by Berget's original defense attorney that proved their client's intellectual disability, according to a report by The Intercept. One record showed that Berget had been evaluated by a psychologist when he was 9 years old, who assigned him an IQ score of 70, The Intercept reported. Berget also reportedly told Yackel during an in-person meeting that as a young kid in the 1970s, he participated in the Special Olympics.

Under South Dakota capital punishment law, if there is a question on an inmate's mental competence to proceed with the execution, the warden of the state penitentiary will notify the governor, secretary of corrections and the sentencing court, where it would then be determined by a sentencing court if there is substantial threshold showing of incompetence to be executed.

Berget was facing an execution via lethal injection, a process in which the South Dakota DOC said it conducts in a "professional, humane and dignified manner."

On Friday, Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R-SD) issued a release backing Berget's execution.

"I believe the death penalty is appropriate in rare cases," Daugaard said. "In this case, the judicial system worked, and it decided that Rodney Berget is a danger to society, even within the prison walls. At this time I do not plan to stop this sentence from going forward.”

Under South Dakota capital punishment law, all executions are conducted under the direction of the warden of either the South Dakota State Penitentiary or the South Dakota Women's Prison.

On Sunday evening, Berget was served his final meal before his execution. According to KSFY-TV, Berget was served buttermilk pancakes, waffles, maple syrup, butter, breakfast sausage, scrambled eggs, french fries, Pepsi and cherry nibs licorice.

South Dakota is one of 30 states to have the death penalty in the United States.

Since 1976, four people have been executed. Prior to 1976, 15 people were executed.

Following Berget's death, South Dakota has a current death row population of two.

Charles R. Rhines, 61, is on death row for the murder of 22-year-old Donnivan Schaeffer during a burglary attempt at a Rapid City, S.D., doughnut shop in March 1992.

Briley W. Piper, 37, is on death row after being convicted of first-degree murder for participating in the torture and killing of Chester Allan Poage, 19, in Spearfish, S.D., in March 2000.

Reporter Barry Amundson contributed to this report

Ross Torgerson

Digital Reporter for Forum Communications. Native of Moorhead, Minn. Have a question or story idea? Email me at rtorgerson@forumcomm.com. Follow me on Twitter @RossTorgerson

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