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SD Supreme Court Appeal Over Berget's Newfound Family

May 27, 2014, 4:47 PM by Ben Dunsmoor

SD Supreme Court Appeal Over Berget's Newfound Family
Rodney Berget

PIERRE, SD -

South Dakota death row inmate Rodney Berget is asking the South Dakota Supreme Court for a new sentencing hearing.

Berget was sentenced to death in early 2012 for murdering Correctional Officer Ron ‘RJ’ Johnson as part of a failed prison escape in April 2011. On Tuesday, his attorney argued that Berget’s newfound family should be considered during a new hearing.

This is the second time Berget is appealing his sentence. The first time Berget appealed his death sentence it was reversed and sent back for a new hearing because the judge inappropriately considered a psychological report. When the circuit court resentenced Berget to death last year, he asked if testimony about his newly discovered son and grandkids could be presented as evidence at a new hearing. That was denied so now Berget is again taking his case to the Supreme Court.

2013 Story: Berget's New Son Will Not Bring New Hearing

“There is a very meaningful relationship with both his son and his daughter-in-law and it goes to his character, it goes to his worth as a human being and it goes to proof that he could lead a constructive life in prison,” Berget’s attorney Jeff Larson said on Tuesday in front of the Supreme Court.

Larson says Berget’s son came forward after the convicted killer was first sentenced to die in February 2012. Larson argues that Berget’s newfound family should have been considered when the death row inmate was resentenced last year and he contends the Supreme Court should order a new sentencing.

“After this case became public, his son learned that Rodney was his father. The first he had learned. His son’s family sought us out. There is now a relationship,” Larson said.

Prosecutors say Berget waited to disclose that he had a family and should not be allowed to have a new sentencing hearing.

“Instead what we see here is Berget waited. He made a conscious choice to not develop any potentially mitigating family evidence before his original sentencing and did not do so until after he received a sentence of death,” Assistant Attorney General Paul Swedlund said.

Swedlund also argues that Berget’s family will not change the fact that Berget brutally killed Correctional Officer Johnson.

“It could not possibly outweigh the mountain of aggravating evidence that exists in this record against Berget - two attempted murders, a kidnapping and a rape, a vicious and unsparing murder of Ron Johnson,” Swedlund said.

Berget’s attorney is also asking for a new sentencing because when the inmate was given the death penalty a second time last year, Judge Brad Zell issued a written death sentence instead of doing it during a live hearing.

The justices will consider the arguments presented Tuesday and make a ruling at a later date. It took the justices three months to return a decision during Berget’s last appeal.

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