SD Execution Reveals Failed Justice System, Political Hypocrisy

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    “It truly was a surreal experience to witness the processes surrounding an actual death penalty,” Brady Mallory, a witness at the first execution in South Dakota in half a decade, told MintPress.

    Eric Robert, 50, a prison inmate who killed a guard in 2011 during a botched escape attempt at the state penitentiary in Sioux Falls, was put to death by the state last week. On Oct. 15 Robert received a lethal injection and was then pronounced dead. He is the first South Dakota inmate to die under the state’s new single-drug lethal injection method, which some are calling cruel and unusual.

    Roberts was the 17th person to be executed in the state.

    This is the same state which recently considered putting into place one of the toughest anti-abortion laws in the country, short of outright banning the procedure.

    In late July, a federal appeals court upheld a South Dakota law requiring that doctors tell women seeking abortions that the procedure causes an increased risk of suicide.

    The abortion/suicide provision was tacked to larger bill the South Dakota legislature passed in March 2005. Planned Parenthood Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota challenged the law in June 2005, arguing that it violates free speech rights by forcing doctors to tell women information that is not based on reliable research.

    A state which allows for the death penalty but seeks to banish abortion is extremely contradictory if not morally ironic.


    The execution

    Mallory who witnessed the entire event as a reporter covering the story with local television news station KELO said, “At several different moments, cars would drive by and honk their horns and/or yell out their windows. The only clear drive-by statement I can recall was one man who yelled, ‘Kill the fucker!’

    “I arrived at the South Dakota State Penitentiary at about 4 p.m. to set up for the lethal injection that was to happen at 10 p.m. The people were already gathering on the lawn. From an outside perspective, I am sure it looked like an outdoor concert was about to take place,” Mallory said.

    But nothing so benign was about to occur. The crowd of those protesting and those in support of the death penalty were poised to make their voices heard on the eve of the execution. Kevin Kroger, president of the South Dakota Peace and Justice Center, was one of the organizers of the vigil of those protesting the execution. The other groups joining this effort were Pax Christie and South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

    Supporters of the death penalty will be separated from the vigil, DOC spokesman Michael Winder told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.

    Robert never appealed his sentence and, in fact, asked to hasten the execution. He tried to bypass a mandatory state review.

    Rodney Berget, 50, also has pleaded guilty in the killing, but did appeal his death sentence. A third inmate, Michael Nordman, 47, was handed down a life sentence for providing materials used in the slaying.

    Kroger said the purpose of the protest was to give voice to those who feel that life is sacred, even for those who’ve committed murder.


    The crime

    Robert beat prison guard Ronald “RJ” Johnson with a pipe and covered his head in plastic wrap to kill him. He was trying to break out of prison along with fellow inmate Berget. The two were on a work detail in a part of the prison known as Pheasantland Industries, where inmates work on upholstery, signs, custom furniture and other varied projects.

    Reports from authorities say that after the inmates beat Johnson and left him to die, Robert put on his pants, hat and jacket and approached a prison gate, head hung down, pushing a cart loaded with two boxes. Berget was hidden in one of the boxes, a report filed by a prison worker after the slaying details.

    Other guards became suspicious, and Robert beat another guard after being confronted. More guards rushed to the scene and detained both inmates.

    At his trial last October, Robert, a former EMT and little league coach, said that he was so full of anger and a desire of freedom that he would have killed anyone who stood in his way during the escape attempt.

    He asked to be sentenced to death, telling the judge that he would otherwise kill again.

    He spent the last few days of his earthly life fasting, according to media reports. Robert took his last meal — Moose Tracks ice cream — on Saturday evening, his attorneys confirmed. The 40-hour fast he undertook was of a religious nature, with 40 hours serving as a metaphor for the 40-day fast of Christ in the Bible.


    The failed system

    If the goal of the American prison system is truly to rehabilitate offenders, as it purports to do, the system is a woeful failure. Robert’s story makes this crystal clear.

    Robert had originally gone to prison on a kidnapping charge. He confessed to kidnapping an 18-year-old woman to rob her.

    Experts and government officials say that crime rehabilitation has proven to be a failed objective of justice systems in America. In a recent study, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that national prison recidivism was at 67 percent.

    Robert’s execution could be the first of a few more in South Dakota over the upcoming weeks.

    Donald Moeller is scheduled to be put to death the week of Oct. 28 for the 1990 kidnapping, rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl. His attorneys argue that South Dakota’s execution methods constitute cruel and unusual punishment, due to the new single injection method, but a judge tossed their arguments out of court recently.

    Faced with dwindling supplies of sodium thiopental, the drug most commonly used in executions in the U.S., South Dakota has turned to pentobarbital, a barbiturate typically utilized to treat anxiety and convulsive disorders such as epilepsy. Megan McCracken with the University of California Berkeley School of Law’s Death Penalty Clinic told the Associated Press that a one-drug method can lessen the risk of pain and suffering by removing the paralytic agent and potassium chloride from the mix. “On the other hand,” she said, “in a one-drug procedure, needless to say, the one drug matters.”

    The question of where states like South Dakota are getting the drug is also a mystery. Prison supplies of the only form of pentobarbital approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in humans have shrunk after the manufacturer said it would prevent its use in executions.

    South Dakota says its supply of pentobarbital is obtained through an undisclosed compounding pharmacy. Such pharmacies custom-mix solutions, creams and other medications in doses or forms that generally aren’t commercially available. The FDA considers compounding pharmacy products unapproved drugs and does not verify their safety or effectiveness.

    There are three other inmates currently on death row in South Dakota.

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