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Ex-Superior man executed for killing guard

Family friends of murder victim Ronald "RJ" Johnson gather outside the South Dakota Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, S.D., on Monday, in anticipation of the execution of Eric Robert, Johnson's killer.

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- A former Superior resident who beat a South Dakota prison guard with a pipe and covered his head in plastic wrap to kill him during a failed escape attempt was put to death Monday, in the state's first execution since 2007.

Eric Robert, 50, received lethal injection and was pronounced dead at the state penitentiary in Sioux Falls. He is the first South Dakota inmate to die under the state's new single-drug lethal injection method, and only the 17th person to be executed in the state or Dakota Territory since 1877.

Robert graduated from high school in Hayward, Wis., and about 10 years ago lived in Superior, where he worked for the city's Public Works Department as a crew supervisor.

Robert had no expression on his face. Asked by the Warden if he had a last statement, Robert said, "In the name of justice and liberty and mercy, I authorize and forgive Warden Douglas Weber to execute me for the crimes. It is done."

As the drug was administered, the clean-shaven Robert, wearing orange inmate pants with a white blanket wrapped around his upper body, appeared to be clearing his throat and then began to make heavy gasps. He started snoring for about 30 seconds.

His eyes remained opened throughout and his skin turned pale, eventually gaining a purplish hue.

Robert was put to death in the same prison where he killed guard Ronald "RJ" Johnson during an escape attempt on April 12, 2011.

Robert was serving an 80-year sentence on a kidnapping conviction when he tried to break out with fellow inmate Rodney Berget, 50.

Johnson was working alone the morning of his death -- also his 63rd birthday -- in a part of the prison known as Pheasantland Industries, where inmates work on upholstery, signs, custom furniture and other projects.

Authorities said the inmates beat Johnson with a pipe, covered his head in plastic wrap and left his body on the floor.

Robert then put on Johnson's pants, hat and jacket and approached the prison's west gate. With his head down, he pushed a cart loaded with two boxes. Berget was hidden in one of the boxes, according to a report filed by a prison worker after the slaying.

Other guards became suspicious as the men got closer to the gate. When confronted, Robert beat one guard; other guards quickly arrived and detained both inmates.

Months later, Robert told a judge his only regret was that he hadn't killed more guards. He pleaded guilty to Johnson's slaying and asked to be sentenced to death, telling a judge last October that he would otherwise kill again. He never appealed his sentence and even tried to bypass a mandatory state review in hopes of expediting his death.

Berget also has pleaded guilty in the killing, but has appealed his death sentence. A third inmate, Michael Nordman, 47, was given a life sentence for providing materials used in the slaying.

Robert's execution could be the first of two in as many 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. Robert had been on death row only for about a year, Moeller has been there for more than two decades. Only three other inmates currently are on the state's death row.

South Dakota's last execution before Monday took place in 2007, and that was the first in the state for 60 years.

"You have few people on death row, few executions, and then you have this coincidence of cases coming all at once," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. "When people waive appeals, their cases start to move more quickly."

Opponents of the death penalty gathered before the execution on Monday for a vigil outside the prison.

"It makes no sense to me that we do the very same thing that we're punishing them for," said 56-year-old Elaine Engelgau, who sat in a lawn chair with a sign that read, "End the death penalty."

Across the street, a group of death penalty supporters waved a flag with Ronald Johnson's photo on it.

"I think he's dying an easier way than RJ did," said Tonya Reyelts-Doese, who said she was a friend of the Johnson family.