Family of Slain Prison Guard Sues South Dakota Officials

May 1, 2012

The family of a slain prison guard filed a lawsuit Friday against the South Dakota Department of Corrections, arguing that negligence by corrections staff led to the death of Ronald R.J Johnson during a failed escape attempt by two inmates a year ago.

KELO-TV reported that the lawsuit alleges Warden Doug Weber, state Corrections Secretary Denny Kaemingk and others disregarded the risk that inmates Rodney Berget and Eric Robert posed to staff in the South Dakota State Penitentiary.

State officials declined to comment on the lawsuit.

“Officer Johnson’s death was very sad, but because of the pending litigation I cannot comment on the lawsuit other than to say it will have to run its course in the courts,” Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s press secretary, Joe Kafka, told The Associated Press.

Prosecutors have said Berget and Robert killed Johnson by hitting him with a pipe and wrapping his head in plastic wrap as he worked alone April 12, 2011, in a part of the prison where inmates work on upholstery, signs, custom furniture and other projects.

Robert put on Johnson’s uniform and tried to move a large box toward the prison gate with Berget inside, but the two were caught before leaving the prison.

Berget and Robert pleaded guilty and were sentenced to death.

South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley said a private lawyer has been hired to defend the state in the lawsuit. Jackley said he worked closely with Johnson’s family in prosecuting the inmates, so he cannot represent the state in the lawsuit filed by the family.

The lawsuit argues that prison officials not only moved Berget and Robert out of the maximum-security area of the prison, but also knew the two inmates were plotting an escape attempt that involved killing an officer.

Robert had a 903-page file at the prison and a previous escape attempt, according to the lawsuit. Berget had been in and out of prison since he was 15 and had at least seven escapes or attempted escapes on his record.

The lawsuit said prison officials violated policy by not housing Berget and Robert in a maximum-security area and instead allowing them to work jobs and have free movement within the prison.

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