Federal Judge Lawrence Piersol has dismissed the federal portion of a wrongful death lawsuit against the South Dakota Department of Corrections.
The lawsuit was filed by Lynette Johnson, the wife of Correctional Officer Ronald ‘RJ’ Johnson who was murdered during a failed prison break in 2011.
Johnson is suing former Warden Doug Weber and other Department of Corrections officials because they knew about the escape histories of inmates Rodney Berget and Eric Robert but did not house them in the maximum-security Jameson Annex of the prison, and gave them jobs that allowed them to move within the prison. Berget and Robert murdered RJ Johnson on April 12, 2011, stole his uniform and then tried to walk out of the front gate. The escape attempt was stopped before the pair made it out of the prison.
In his decision Piersol says that DOC actions did not ‘shock the conscience’ and that the actions of prison officials did not put RJ Johnson at a significant risk of ‘immediate and proximate harm.’ Piersol says the decision to place Berget and Robert jobs and place them in the regular prison and not in the maximum custody unit was far removed from the attempted escape and murder.
“Berget had worked as an orderly in various positions for many years without creating a known threat of harm to anyone,” Piersol wrote in his decision filed on May 15.
Piersol’s decision dismisses the federal claim filed against the South Dakota Department of Corrections but five claims including a wrongful death claim and an emotional distress claim can be pursued in state court.