South Dakota

South Dakota

Amid Questions of Competency, South Dakota to Execute Special-Olympics Defendant Who Gave Up Appeals

The South Dakota Supreme Court has denied motions that sought to delay the October 29, 2018 execution of Rodney Berget (pictured). As the state prepared to execute Berget, the former public defender who represented him at trial took action to fight a prospective legal guardian’s efforts to keep the former Special Olympics participant from being put to death. On Friday, October 26, Juliet Yackel, a Chicago-based lawyer who had been retained in Berget’s state post-conviction proceedings as a mitigation investigator, filed a pleading called a petition for writ of prohibition that asked the South Dakota Supreme Court to halt Berget’s execution and to appoint her as his legal guardian “because he has an intellectual disability and [is] otherwise incompetent, rendering him ineligible to be executed.” Berget waived a jury trial and pled guilty to murder for his involvement in the death of a prison guard, and is currently attempting to waive his appeals. At the close of the trial, he told the sentencing judge, “I believe I deserve the death penalty for what I’ve done.” Yackel’s petition describes Berget as “intellectually disabled and suicidal.” The motion alleges Berget “is not able to protect his own interests and the attorneys assigned to do so have refused” to do so. On Saturday, October 27, Berget’s trial lawyer, Jeff Larson—whom the court removed from the case after he attempted to continue to represent Berget in appeal proceedings meant to raise issues of his possible ineffective assistance at trial—filed an affidavit from Berget opposing Yackel’s motion and reasserting the reasons why Berget says he wants to drop all appeals. On October 29, the South Dakota high court denied the petition.

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that individuals with intellectual disability—then known as mental retardation—may not be executed. Yackel’s petition includes a litany of evidence she says  “clearly demonstrates” Berget’s ineligibility for the death penalty: IQ tests administered during Berget’s childhood in which he scored under 70, public welfare records in which a psychologist noted that “the boy appears ... to be suffering from borderline mental retardation,” Berget’s assignment to special education classes and participation in Special Olympics, and a diagnosis of intellectual disability by several leading national mental health experts. The petition and an accompanying affidavit also set forth evidence that Berget has a “lengthy history of self-harm and suicidality.” “This is one of the clearest-cut cases of intellectual disability that I’ve ever worked on,” Yackel told Liliana Segura, an investigative reporter for The Intercept. “There is no question here. This is not a close call.” 

With Larson describing his client as “very intelligent and quite competent,” Berget pled guilty and waived his right to a jury trial. After Larson was fired from the public defender’s office, he continued to represent Berget pro bono, and did not retain a mitigation investigator to research Berget’s background, upbringing, and mental health history. He presented what Segura describes as “an astonishingly weak defense.” After the court removed Larson from the case, Berget was represented by Eric Schulte, a civil lawyer with no capital case experience, who also failed to present evidence of Berget’s participation in Special Olympics. The trial court rejected the intellectual disability claim raised  by Schulte, relying on testimony from a prosecution psychologist who had employed scientifically unsupported methods for assessing intellectual disability that were similar to those the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in Moore v. Texas in 2017. According to Yackel’s petition, acting on “the advice of his personal spiritual advisor, [Schulte] disregarded the clear need for appellate review and refused to file a Notice of Appeal,” effectively waiving Berget’s right to appeal. Dr. Stephen Greenspan, one of the leading national experts on intellectual disability, called the trial court’s ruling “egregious” and the case “one of the most outrageous” he had seen. 

Supreme Court Asked to Review Constitutionality of Death Sentence Grounded in Anti-Gay Stereotypes

A gay man on death row in South Dakota has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review his case and to rule that it is unconstitutional for jurors to impose the death penalty based upon anti-gay animus and stereotypes. Charles Rhines (pictured) argues that South Dakota’s courts improperly refused to consider evidence—including an affidavit from one of his jurors that the jury “knew that he was a homosexual and thought that he shouldn’t be able to spend his life with men in prison”—showing that jurors in his case improperly based their death verdict on his sexual orientation. In 2017, in Buck v. Davis, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts wrote that “Our law punishes people for what they do, not who they are.” The Court said that a death sentence based on race would be “a disturbing departure from [that] basic premise of our criminal justice system” and ruled that Buck’s lawyer had been ineffective for presenting a witness whose testimony led to a death verdict based on “a noxious strain of racial prejudice.” The same year, the Court held in Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado that “where a juror makes a clear statement that indicates he or she relied on racial stereotypes or animus to convict a criminal defendant, the Sixth Amendment requires that the no-impeachment rule [under a state rule of evidence] give way in order to permit the trial court to consider the evidence of the juror’s statement and any resulting denial of the jury trial guarantee.” Rhines’ petition asks the Court to rule that states may not refuse to consider evidence of juror animus based on sexual orientation and to declare that death sentences based upon prejudicial homophobic stereotypes are unconstitutional. An affidavit submitted by one of the jurors in Rhines’ case said that there had been “lots of discussion of homosexuality” during deliberations and “a lot of disgust.” While they were deliberating, jurors asked the court whether Rhines would be allowed to “mix with the general inmate population,” “create a group of followers or admirers,” “brag about his crime to other inmates, especially new and[/]or young men,” “marry or have conjugal visits,” or “have a cellmate.” According to an affidavit, one juror advocated against incarcerating Rhines with other men for life imprisonment without parole because it “would be sending him where he wants to go.” Quoting Buck, Rhines’ lawyers wrote, “To allow a juror to vote for a man’s death sentence on the basis of anti-gay animus and stereotypes unquestionably violates the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments, along with the foundational principle that ‘[o]ur law punishes people for what they do, not who they are. Dispensing punishment on the basis of an immutable characteristic flatly contravenes this guiding principle.’” South Dakota opposes Rhines’ request, arguing that the constitutional principles that prohibit inquiring into jury sentencing based on racial bias do not apply to “bias based on gender, alienage, or sexual orientation. ... No politician has ever proposed constructing a wall to keep homosexuals out of the country,” the state’s brief says. “No civil war has been fought over [sexual orientation]. No nationwide pogrom has been perpetrated for the enslavement or eradication of homosexuals.” The Court has scheduled a conference for June 14 on whether to review Rhines’ case. [UPDATE: On June 18, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Rhines’s petition for writ of certiorari, declining to review his case.]

South Dakota Takes Death Penalty Off Table At Victim’s Family’s Request

At the urging of the victim’s family, Rapid City, South Dakota prosecutors have withdrawn their request for the death penalty against two murder defendants in the only capital trials pending in the state. On April 16, Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo withdrew the state’s notice of intent to seek the death penalty against Jonathon Klinetobein—charged with arranging the May 2015 murder-for-hire of his ex-girlfriend, Jessica Rehfeld—after her father, Michael Rehfeld told the court the family no longer wanted the death penalty to be imposed. On April 19, prosecutors also withdrew their notice of intent against a second defendant, Richard Hirth, the accused killer. A third defendant pleaded guilty to the murder in January in exchange for receiving a life sentence. Mr. Rehfeld said that he had been “consumed with anger” at the time the capital charges were initially sought and that he had “fully supported” that decision. However, he said, with time, he had reconsidered his position. Mr. Rehfeld said the lengthy appeal process following the imposition of a death sentence in the case would keep his daughter’s killers in the news, permitting “the guilty to become famous,” as a prolonged traumatic courtroom saga that relegated his daughter to a sidelight prevented the family from healing. He also said that the family would be unable to recover his daughter’s personal belongings—including a cellphone with the last pictures taken of her—as long as the case remained on appeal. Klinetobein and Hirth now face life without parole if convicted. Victims’ family members, concerned that the capital trial and appeals process interferes with or delays healing, are increasingly requesting that prosecutors not pursue the death penalty. A University of Minnesota study found that just 2.5% of victims family members reported achieving closure as a result of capital punishment, while 20.1% said the execution did not help them heal. Another study, published in the Marquette Law Review, found that family members in homicide proceedings in which the death penalty was unavailable or had not been imposed were physically, psychologically, and emotionally more healthy and expressed greater satisfaction with the legal system than family members in death-penalty cases. Pennington County Commission Chairman Lloyd LaCroix said the decision to withdraw the death penalty would save the county money, although he was uncertain how much. In September 2017, the commissioners granted requests by the county courts and the public defender’s office for half-million-dollar increases to their 2018 budgets. The director of the public defender’s office had previously estimated that taxpayers could "reasonably expect" to pay between $500,000 and $1 million in prosecution and defense costs for the cases. Rapid City last imposed a death sentence in 1993. Charles Rhines' appeals in that case reached the U.S. Supreme Court before being sent back for additional appeals that are still in progress.

Death-Penalty Prosecutions Create Million-Dollar Budget Burden for South Dakota County

County Commissioners in Pennington CountySouth Dakota have approved budget increases of a half-million dollars each for the county's courts and its public defender office for 2018, largely as a result of two high-profile death-penalty prosecutions. Taxpayers will shoulder most of the financial burden resulting from the capital prosecutions of Rapid City defendants Jonathon Klinetobe and Richard Hirth, charged with murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy in the disappearance and death of Klinetobe’s ex-girlfriend, Jessica Rehfeld, in 2015. A third man involved in the alleged plot avoided the death penalty by agreeing to plead guilty and cooperate with the prosecution. In preparation for their trials, the public defender’s office in Pennington County, the state's second most populous, requested a $567,000 increase over and above its current $2.4 million budget. The county courthouse, which pays court-appointed attorneys, requested an increase of $530,000 above its already $1.4 million budget. The county prosecutor's office will also receive a $135,000 increase to its $5.1 million budget. The County Commissioners approved the increases on September 26. Eric Whitcher, director of the Pennington County Public Defender’s Office, said death-penalty cases are “exceedingly expensive” and taxpayers can “reasonably expect” to pay between $500,000 to $1 million in trial-related costs. His June 13 letter to the county auditor’s office stressed that additional funding was essential to cover "substantial expenditures" for expert evaluations, travel expenses, and witness fees. The public defender's office, which represents Klinetobe, is prohibited from representing both defendants, requiring the appointment of private counsel for Hirth. The court has appointed two private lawyers in his case, and Klinetobe is represented by one private lawyer, in addition to two lawyers from the public defender’s office. About $200,000 of the new funding granted to the public defender’s office has been earmarked for Klinetobe’s defense alone. Holli Hennies, county commission office manager, said in June that budget increases would largely be funded from property tax collections. 

NEW VOICES: South Dakota Republican Legislator to Propose Death Penalty Repeal Bill

South Dakota state Senator Arthur Rusch (R-Vermillion, pictured), a former trial court judge who presided over a capital trial in which a defendant was sentenced to death, said he will be introducing legislation next year to repeal the state's death penalty. Rusch said he supports repeal because of the emotional toll of capital trials on juriors and because of the financial impact of capital punishment. As a former Lincoln County circuit court judge, Rusch presided over the 1997 trial of Donald Moeller, and saw firsthand the anguish jurors experienced when they sentenced Moeller to death. Because of that experience, he said, "I think I'm more knowledgeable about the emotional toll. It's really hard on people having to make that decision." On the issue of cost, he said, "I know there’s this reaction that keeping people in jail for many, many years is expensive, but it’s nowhere near as expensive as the court costs." Death penalty abolition bills have previously failed in committee in South Dakota, but Senator Bernie Hunhoff (D-Yankton) said that the support of Republicans like Rusch could change that and allow the state to follow in the footsteps of neighboring Nebraska. "You can see that gradual transformation in Nebraska, and you’re seeing that very same thing here," said Sen. Hunhoff, who has sponsored past repeal bills in South Dakota. South Dakota has three people on death row, and has executed three people since 1976.

DPIC RESOURCES: New State Pages Now Available

DPIC is pleased to announce the completion of our State Information Pages for all 50 states and the District of Columbia.  These state profiles provide historical and current information on the death penalty for each state, including famous cases, past legislative actions, and links to key organizations and state officials.  For frequently updated information, such as execution totals, the size of death row, or the number of exonerations, see our State-by-State Database.  Readers are encouraged to send additional information, pictures, and links to organizations in their state.  You can reach the State Information Pages through the "State by State" button at the top of every page on our website or under the "Resources" tab in our main menu.

Update on Lethal Injection Issue

In a clear national trend, seven states (Alabama, Arizona, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, and South Carolina) have used pentobarbital instead of sodium thiopental in their executions in 2011. The most recent such execution was that of Donald Beaty in Arizona on May 25, following a temporary stay as the state made a sudden switch to the new drug.  Ohio is the only one of the seven states to use pentobarbital as the sole drug in its lethal-injection process.  At least five states (Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and South Carolina) that acquired sodium thiopental through an overseas source have had the drug seized by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.  In addition, Arizona was instructed by the DEA not to use its foreign sodium thiopental just prior to the May 25 execution. Arkansas and California also have supplies of sodium thiopental originally obtained from a supplier in Great Britain.  In Nebraska, questions about its supply of sodium thiopental--obtained from a company in India--has postponed the execution of Carey Dean Moore.  South Dakota's sodium thiopental was also reportedly obtained from India.  Other states like Georgia, Louisiana, and Virginia have indicated they intend to switch to pentobarbital in future executions.

LETHAL INJECTION: Latest Foreign Supplier of Drugs for U.S. Executions Refuses to Continue

When the sole U.S. supplier of a drug used by all death penalty states announced it was halting production earlier this year, many states turned to sources overseas.  In particular, Nebraska obtained a large quantity of the drug--sodium thiopental--from a company in Mumbai, India.  Now that company has announced it will no longer supply the drug for use in lethal injections.  In a statement released to the media, Kayem Pharmaceutical Pvt. Ltd. said, "In view of the sensitivity involved with sale of our thiopental sodium to various jails/prisons in USA and as alleged to be used for the purpose of lethal injection, we voluntary declare that we as Indian Pharma Dealer who cherish the Ethos of Hinduism (A believer even in non-livings as the creation of God) refrain ourselves in selling this drug where the purpose is purely for Lethal Injection and its misuse."  Earlier this year, the sole U.S. manufacturer of the same drug, Hospira Inc., similarly announced that it wanted no part in supplying drugs for executions. Nebraska death row inmate Carey Moore is challenging the legality of the state’s purchase of the drug.  According to a motion filed with the Nebraska Supreme Court, there is no evidence that Kayem Pharmaceutical is registered with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) or is authorized to deliver drugs to the U.S. There is also evidence that Nebraska received a generic form of the drug, contrary to the state's execution protocol.

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