SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A transcript from the recent execution of a South Dakota inmate who killed a prison guard shows the inmate asking after the lethal injection: “Is it supposed to feel like that?”
Corrections officials released a transcript Tuesday from the Oct. 29 execution of Rodney Berget, who was sentenced to death for killing corrections officer Ronald “R.J.” Johnson during a 2011 prison escape attempt. Berget, 56, was pronounced dead 12 minutes after the lethal injection of the barbiturate pentobarbital began.
A national group that compiles information on capital punishment said the state should release more details about the drug used.
“We don’t know the manufacturing process that was involved, we don’t know the age of the drugs and the comment is consistent with remarks made by other prisoners who had been executed using drugs that” may have been outdated or impure, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, which doesn’t take a position on capital punishment but is critical of the way it’s administered.
“On the other hand, it could simply be an expression of surprise, and without transparency by the state, we won’t know the answers,” he said.
The state Department of Corrections didn’t immediately respond to an email from The Associated Press seeking comment on Berget’s last words.
After the drug was administered at 7:25 p.m., Berget groaned and pushed out his chest. He drifted off and snored briefly before his eyes closed. He was pronounced dead at 7:37 p.m. CDT. The transcript shows Berget’s last words were, “Is it supposed to feel like that?”
The widow of the corrections officer killed by Berget, Lynette Johnson, witnessed the execution. She said afterward that her husband experienced “cruel and unusual punishment” but Berget’s lethal injection was “peaceful” and “sterile.”
Some past executions have raised questions about the use of pentobarbital. In Texas, an inmate put to death in July cursed twice and said the drug burned his throat. An inmate executed in June started taking quick breaths as the sedative started to take effect, muttering at one point that it was “burning” and that it “hurt.” Before that, a Texas inmate said the drug burned. “Oooh-ee! I can feel that,” he said before slipping into unconsciousness.
Dunham said South Dakota should reveal the source and manufacturer of the drug, the production date, any initial and revised expiration dates and the storage and transportation conditions. State lawmakers in 2013 approved hiding the identities of its drug suppliers.
Berget was serving a life sentence for attempted murder and kidnapping when he and another inmate, Eric Robert, attacked Johnson on April 12, 2011, in a part of the penitentiary known as Pheasantland Industries, where inmates work on upholstery, signs, furniture and other projects.
Johnson turned 63 on the day that he was killed, and he was nearing the end of a nearly 24-year career as a guard.
After Johnson was beaten, Robert put on Johnson’s pants, hat and jacket and pushed a cart loaded with two boxes, one with Berget inside, toward the exits. They made it outside one gate but were stopped by another guard before they could complete their escape through a second gate. Berget admitted to his role in the slaying.
Robert was executed on Oct. 15, 2012.
Berget’s mental status and death penalty eligibility played a role in court delays. Berget in 2016 appealed his death sentence, but later asked to withdraw the appeal against his lawyers’ advice. Berget wrote to a judge saying he thought the death penalty would be overturned and that he couldn’t imagine spending “another 30 years in a cage doing a life sentence.”
The transcript of his last moments shows Berget joked about a several-hour delay to his execution. He also thanked people who supported him and said he loved “Tammy,” ”sonny boy” and “Gigi.” Berget’s execution was the state’s fourth since reinstituting the death penalty in 1979.
Jeff Larson, an attorney for Berget, said the execution of his client was yet another violent act in the “vile” death penalty process. Larson said it’s an embarrassment to the legal profession that “we try to solve problems in this manner.”