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South Dakota executes man who killed guard in escape attempt

(Reuters) - South Dakota on Monday executed an inmate convicted of beating a prison guard to death during a failed escape attempt, in the state's first execution in five years.

Eric Robert, 50, was put to death by lethal injection at the state prison in Sioux Falls. He was pronounced dead at 10:24 p.m. (11:24 p.m. EDT), the corrections department said.

Robert's execution came 18 months after authorities say he and fellow inmate Rodney Berget beat guard Ronald Johnson to death with a lead pipe and attacked other officers in an escape attempt on Johnson's birthday in April 2011.

Johnson's widow, Lynette Johnson, witnessed the execution. She said afterward that her family did not want people to forget "how kind, how wonderful and caring" her husband was.

"We know this execution tonight is not going to bring back my husband to me, it is not going to bring our children's father back to them, our six grandchildren's 'papa' back to them but we do know that the employees of the department of corrections and the public in general will be just a little bit safer now," she said.

Robert pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the killing of Johnson, waived a jury for sentencing, told the judge during sentencing that he would kill again if he did not receive the death penalty and opposed efforts to halt his execution.

Corrections officials said his last words were: "In the name of justice and liberty and mercy I authorize and forgive Warden Douglas Weber to execute me for my crimes. It is done."

According to court records, Robert was five years into an 80-year sentence for kidnapping a young woman when he and Berget planned their escape from the prison in Sioux Falls.

The men entered an area of the prison they were not allowed to be in and attacked Johnson with a lead pipe. Robert then put on the guard's pants, shoes, jacket and baseball cap and Berget hid on a cart, court documents show.

Robert tried to push the cart with Berget inside through a prison exit, but was challenged by an officer, setting off a fight with several guards before they surrendered, they show.

Robert had a last meal of ice cream on Saturday night, then fasted, said attorney Mark Kadi.

Executions have been rare in South Dakota - there have only been two since 1913.

"In this case, Eric Robert admitted to his crime and requested that his punishment not be delayed," South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard said in a statement.

But the state might have a second execution in October. South Dakota is scheduled to execute Donald Moeller for the 1990 rape and murder of 9-year-old Becky O'Connell the week of October 28 to November 3. The prison warden schedules the specific date and time.

Before Robert's execution, 31 prisoners had been executed in the United States in 2012, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

(Reporting by David Bailey in Minneapolis; editing by Doina Chiacu)

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