PIERRE, S.D. — The South Dakota Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the death sentence for an inmate who killed a state prison guard during a failed escape attempt last year.
Eric Robert, 50, pleaded guilty to killing Ron Johnson in April last year and asked to be executed for the crime.
Circuit Judge Bradley Zell of Sioux Falls sentenced Robert to death and set his execution for May, but the Supreme Court postponed the execution so it could conduct a mandatory review of the sentence.
The high court ruled unanimously Thursday that the death sentence was proper because it is proportionate to the crime and that aggravating circumstances — that Robert killed a prison guard and the murder occurred during an escape attempt — justify the death penalty.
“This was not merely an escape attempt on the spur of the moment where events spiraled out of control. Here the record reflects that Robert had been planning his escape attempt, which included the murder of a corrections officer, for well over a month,” Chief Justice David Gilbertson wrote.
The high court said the circuit judge can now issue another execution order.
A second inmate involved in the escape attempt, 49-year-old Rodney Berget, also pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death, but Berget has appealed his conviction and sentence.
Johnson was working alone on April 12, 2011, his 63rd birthday. Prosecutors said the two inmates killed Johnson by hitting him with a pipe and wrapping his head in plastic wrap. Robert put on Johnson’s uniform and tried to move a large box toward the prison gate with Berget inside. The inmates were apprehended before leaving the prison.