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SD DOC Wants RJ Johnson Lawsuit Dismissed

April 23, 2014, 6:06 PM by Ben Dunsmoor

SD DOC Wants RJ Johnson Lawsuit Dismissed

The South Dakota Department of Corrections wants a federal wrongful death lawsuit for the 2011 murder of Correctional Officer Ron RJ Johnson dismissed.

A DOC lawyer argued for the dismissal in front of federal Judge Lawrence Piersol Wednesday morning. The lawsuit is being brought by Lynette Johnson, the wife of RJ Johnson.

2013 STORY: Lynette Johnson Says DOC Violated Policies

In April of 2011, inmates Rodney Berget and Eric Robert murdered Correctional Officer Johnson, stole his uniform and then tried to walk out of the South Dakota State Penitentiary.

Berget and Robert were maximum security inmates, but weren't being housed in the maximum security Jameson Annex at the time of the crime.  Instead, they were both in the main prison building known as West Hall. They were both working jobs that allowed them to move within the prison walls.

In federal court Wednesday, James Moore, an attorney representing South Dakota Department of Corrections Secretary Denny Kaemingk and other DOC staff members, argued that Berget and Robert didn't pose any immediate threat to prison staff in the main prison even though they were maximum inmates.

Moore pointed out that Berget had been housed there for nearly seven years without problems and Robert for nearly two years.

"At the end of the day, there is simply no evidence that either inmate had a record of institutional violence…by keeping them in West Hall that a correctional officer would be hurt," Moore said.

Donald McCarty, the attorney for Johnson's wife, Lynette, said that retired Warden Doug Weber made a deal with both Berget and Robert and housed them in West Hall instead of Jameson if the inmates would end their hunger strikes. McCarty said other inmates testified during depositions that both inmates manipulated the system.

"I believe (Weber) intentionally placed both of those inmates in response to hunger strikes in violation of policy and then tried to cover it up because those moves were indefensible," McCarty argued to Piersol Wednesday.

McCarty says the proper paperwork wasn't always filed to move Berget and Robert out of the maximum security unit.

The Department of Corrections argues DOC policy does allow for an administrative override of inmate classification and in Berget's case, he didn't function well in the Jameson Annex and staff thought they could 'manage his escape risk.'

Judge Lawrence Piersol says he will make a decision on the case at a later date.

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