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S.D. court overturns death sentence

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The South Dakota Supreme Court has overturned a state prison inmate’s death sentence for the killing of a prison guard nearly two years ago.

In an opinion released Thursday, the justices said Rodney Berget, 50, must get a new sentencing hearing because the circuit judge who sentenced him to die improperly considered a statement Berget made to a psychiatrist.

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The high court said it could not conclude that the use of the statement, in which Berget said he deserves the death penalty for taking Ronald ‘‘R.J.’’ Johnson’s life and destroying a family, was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

Lynette Johnson, the correctional officer’s widow, told KSFY television that she is ‘‘devastated’’ by the ruling and feels that the original case was properly presented.

Berget’s lawyer, Jeff Larson, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

The high court had weighed 12 issues raised by Larson and ruled in the state’s favor in 11 of them, including determining that Berget knowingly and intelligently waived his right to be sentenced by a jury. But it ruled in Berget’s favor on the use of the psychiatrist’s statement and sent the case back to the trial court for a new sentencing hearing.

Despite that, state Attorney General Marty Jackley said in a statement that the court’s ruling affirms the ‘‘appropriateness of a death sentence for Berget’s crime.’’

The state presented substantial evidence demonstrating the heinousness of the crime and Berget’s extensive criminal history, little chance of rehabilitation, and multiple escape attempts, Jackley said.

Berget and another inmate, Eric Robert, attacked Johnson on April 12, 2011 — the prison guard’s 63d birthday — and beat him to death. Robert then donned Johnson’s uniform and tried to push Berget, hidden inside a box, outside the gate of the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls.

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