Wife of fallen officer awaits killer’s execution
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Don’t call Lynette Johnson a widow.
She’s not ready for that title. She hasn’t been able to grieve yet.
Even after the second of two men to be executed for her husband’s 2011 murder dies by lethal injection Monday, that grief won’t subside. She will still wake up every morning and remember that her husband, Ron “RJ” Johnson, is gone.
On a quiet afternoon a few days before Rodney Berget’s scheduled execution, Lynette sat in her living room next to RJ’s old rocking chair and reflected.
On RJ’s life. On how she and her family have changed because of what happened. On how the justice system functions.
She’s careful about what she says and how she says it. She doesn’t want to implicate any possible future action or legislation related to the death penalty.
One thing she will say proudly, without hesitation: Her husband was respected and respectful, and he didn’t deserve to die the way he did.
“He was so kind,” she says. “He didn’t have a bad word to say about anybody.”
RJ wasn’t supposed to be working on April 12, 2011, his 63rd birthday. He even talked about retiring from his near 24-year stint as a correctional officer at the South Dakota State Penitentiary just two days before he was called into work and later killed by two inmates attempting to escape.
RJ made sure to call his wife every day at lunch time to let her know he was OK. That day, she got a call from someone else.
Her husband had been found on the floor under a pile of laundry in the Pheasantland Industries building at the penitentiary, with saran wrap around his head and gashes so deep that part of his skull was missing.
His wrists and fingers were shattered, so much so that medics almost couldn’t see his wedding ring, which Johnson later sized down to wear with her own ring.
RJ’s watch stopped working when he was being attacked. It sits in a clear case next to photos above the fireplace. The hands are frozen at 10:27 a.m., minutes before the two inmates attempting to escape during a food truck delivery were caught.
Photos lining walls, cupboards and chairs in her home are more than mementos. Glancing at them provides moments of relief from the image seared into her mind from last time she saw her husband: bloodied, bruised and lifeless on an emergency room table.
“I just try to remember what he looked like,” says Lynette. “I’m trying to put him back together.”
Any memory is helpful. She smiles when talking about letters she received from inmates who knew and respected RJ. Some former inmates have approached her in public, sharing stories of their encounters with her husband. Some even made her a plaque with the poem “A correctional officer’s farewell” written on it.
She feels mostly prepared for Monday. It’s not the first execution she’s witnessed. Lynette and her children sat through the 2012 execution of Eric Robert, who pleaded guilty to the murder. She described the process as “peaceful” and “dignified.” She’s aware of the reaction that description may draw, but it’s what she remembers.
This execution will be different. Though she knows what to expect, she’s more anxious. She’s nervous about Berget being transferred from the high-security Jameson Annex to general population areas on the hill. She’s worried he may try to escape again. It’s a fear that may subside after Monday.
She worries for her grandchildren. The first execution, they were younger, able to be shielded from news reports and social media. They’re older now and will likely be asking more questions.
In her view, justice can never be fully achieved because the process won’t make up for what happened to her husband and the pain and loss the family has endured.
She also doesn’t expect Monday to bring her family closure. But it may bring a sense of security, knowing a man who has escaped or made escape attempts multiple times won’t harm another correctional officer.
“It’s going to save a correctional officer,” Lynette says.
After Monday, she and her family will continue to learn what life is without a husband, father or “poppa.” They will still hold birthday parties for RJ on his birthday, which is also the anniversary of his death.
Lynette will continue to straighten photos, read through letters from RJ’s former co-workers and inmates and hug the memorial teddy bear sitting in his old chair at the kitchen counter.
She’ll continue to appreciate people who tell her stories about her husband. She may cry, she said, but it’s because she’s grateful that somebody else remembers his life.
“You remember him,” she says of those moments. “You remember he existed.”