Sioux Falls, Oct 29 (AP/UNB) — A man who killed a South Dakota prison guard in a failed escape seven years ago is scheduled to be executed Monday after dropping his death penalty appeal.
Rodney Berget, 56, will be put to death for the 2011 slaying of Ronald "R.J." Johnson, who was beaten with a pipe and had his head covered in plastic wrap at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls. It will be the state's first execution since 2012 and just its fourth since reinstating the death penalty in the late 1970s.
Berget admitted to his role in the slaying. He and inmate Eric Robert attacked Johnson on April 12, 2011 — Johnson's 63rd birthday — in a part of the penitentiary known as Pheasantland Industries, where inmates work on upholstery, signs, furniture and other projects.
After beating Johnson and leaving his body, Robert put on Johnson's pants, hat and jacket and pushed a cart loaded with two boxes, one with Berget inside, toward the exits. They made it through one gate but were stopped by another guard before they could complete their escape through a second gate.
Robert was executed on Oct. 15, 2012. The last execution in South Dakota was on Oct. 30, 2012.
Berget's mental status and death penalty eligibility slowed his case. Berget in 2016 appealed his death sentence, but later asked to withdraw the appeal against his lawyers' advice. Berget wrote to a judge saying he thought the death penalty eventually would be overturned and that he couldn't imagine spending "another 30 years in a cage doing a life sentence."
On Friday, Gov. Dennis Daugaard said he had no plans to block the execution. The state Supreme Court rejected one challenge to the state's method of execution, but a second was pending that argued Berget lacks intellectual capacity to be executed.
Johnson's family plans to witness the execution, which is scheduled for 1:30 p.m.
His widow, Lynette Johnson, sized down R.J.'s wedding ring and now wears it next to her own; she keeps his watch — its hands frozen at the time he was attacked — in a clear case next to photos above her fireplace.
"He was so kind," she told the Argus Leader . "He didn't have a bad word to say about anybody."
Lynette Johnson said she was nervous about the execution, worried that Berget might try to escape. She said his death may bring a sense of security.
The Department of Corrections has said it plans to use a single drug. Its policy calls for either sodium thiopental or pentobarbital. Pentobarbital was used in its last two executions.
South Dakota has not had issues with obtaining the drugs it needs, as some other states have, perhaps because the state shrouds some details in secrecy. Lawmakers in 2013 approved hiding the identities of its suppliers.
After the execution, witnesses and others will meet with media at a guard training academy on prison grounds that was named for Johnson. It was dedicated one year after his death.
Berget will be the second member of his family to be executed. His older brother, Roger, was executed in Oklahoma in 2000 for killing a man to steal his car.
Dennis Davis, director of South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said a prayer vigil is planned outside the prison on Monday.
"We think we are better than this and we hope that some day we can get it abolished," Davis said of the death penalty.
Louisville, Oct 29 (AP/UNB) — She flipped through television channels and radio stations, scanning from conservative to liberal media, searching for any sign that the polarized nation had finally reached its tipping point.
For days, Elisa Karem Parker had been seeing updates in the news: A pipe bomb sent to liberal political donor George Soros. One delivered to CNN. More to former President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and other prominent political figures villainized by those on the right — a bizarre plot unfolding just ahead of the midterm election that will decide which party controls Congress.
"It's like our country is becoming 'The Hunger Games,'" Parker, who considers herself squarely in the middle of the political divide, told her husband and teenage son over dinner.
As authorities intercepted more than a dozen pipe bombs addressed to President Donald Trump's most ardent critics — and then, on Saturday, as news broke of yet another mass shooting in America — political scientists and ordinary citizens observed again that rabid partisanship had devolved to the point of acts of violent extremism. Many wonder whether this latest spasm might be the moment that the nation collectively considers how poisonous the political culture has become and decides to turn the other way.
"If this isn't it, I'd hate to think about what it will take," said Parker as she cast her ballot in early voting last week in Louisville, Kentucky.
The mail-bomb plot is merely the latest in a series of stunning attacks to test how much political animosity Americans are willing to accept: the shooting of a Republican congressman at a baseball practice , the white supremacist rally that turned deadly in Virginia, the recent ricin scare-letters mailed to Trump and other top members of his administration.
On Friday, authorities arrested a suspect in the bomb probe — a 56-year-old registered Republican and Trump enthusiast who "appears to be a partisan," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said when asked about motive. By then, politicians and talking heads had already backed into the usual corners. Both parties blamed the other, and the president called for unity, then again described liberals and the media as villains. The hope Parker had that this might be a turning point faded.
Then came the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue that claimed 11 lives, an attack likely to cause ugly partisan debates over gun control, hate speech and more.
"I just can't believe the kind of violence that we're experiencing in our country," Pittsburgh resident Cindy Jennings said at a vigil for those targeted at the Tree of Life Synagogue. "I feel like the leadership in our country right now is just encouraging violence, and I wish that that would stop."
The volatile tribalism now so ingrained in American life will eventually right itself, says Robb Willer, a sociology professor at Stanford University, but not until the public decides it's had enough and stops rewarding politicians who use incendiary language and demonize the other side. It's impossible to guess, he notes, how much damage will be done in the meantime.
"That is the question of our time: Are we going to choose to continue the war, or are we going to choose peace? And we don't know yet what the answer to that will be, because while a majority of Americans are fed up with the extremity of our political divisions, it does feel like we're stuck here," Willer says. "It will get worse before it gets better."
Animosity between parties has been growing for decades now, to the point that studies show Republicans and Democrats don't want to date one another, don't want their children to marry one another and don't want to live in the same neighborhoods at a rate unprecedented in modern America. At the same time, politicians began using increasingly apocalyptic language. Willer says those two forces — the splintering of society along party lines and the ascent of vitriolic campaigning — merged to create a breeding ground for violence.
"It was simmering," says Parker. "It's like the gas burner was on, then Trump lit the fire."
The president vaulted to political prominence by promoting the racist and false conspiracy theory that Obama was not born in the United States, launched his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans rapists and murderers, and routinely describes his enemies, including the intended recipients of the pipe bombs, as "evil," ''dangerous," ''the enemy of the American people."
"That let loose a period of incivility, which is too mild a word; it's potentially explosive anger that can turn into violence," says Bob Shrum, a former Democratic strategist who last month started the Center for the Political Future, a program at the University of Southern California designed to restore sanity and bipartisanship in politics.
He's watched with frustration as some liberal politicians respond to Trump's presidency by imitating his divisive style. He describes it as a "cold civil war," where people consider those who disagree with them bad, un-American — their enemy.
"Is there a tipping point? I don't know," he says. "I do believe we're in a dangerous moment, unlike anything I've seen in my lifetime, and I'm 75 years old."
There is little evidence the tide will turn soon.
Moderates are becoming increasingly rare in Washington, D.C., and Republicans willing to criticize Trump's rhetoric, such as Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, are not running for re-election.
"You don't really have those reasonable voices kind of trying to bring everybody together," says Tom Freeman, a Republican attorney in Lincoln, Nebraska. "It's just kind of round and round we go, and the sides just get more and more extreme, and you don't have that rational leader in the crowd saying, 'Hey, let's dial it back.' The sad thing is, if you did have that person, I don't know that anyone would listen to them."
The polarization is bleeding into everyday Americans' personal lives.
Robert Major, a 51-year-old electrician and Republican from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, says he once moved because his landlord, a liberal, screamed at him for watching conservative news channels.
Meeka Grayer, a 38-year-old radio talk show host and Democrat from Omaha, Nebraska, lost friends over the divide. One conservative friend posted on Facebook about the migrant caravan heading toward the United States from Central America, parroting the president's vilification of the group. Grayer objected and was attacked for her comments, prompting her to block her friend.
Though on opposite sides politically, Grayer and Major agree: The political climate is toxic and tiresome, but they have little confidence it will change because it's too useful to politicians who want to stay in power.
"I think it's time for the little guy to take control, but will that happen?" says Randy Wick, a 68-year-old Republican in Bloomingdale, Illinois, who blames Republicans, Democrats and the media for the division. "It seems like a good ol' boys club up there in Washington. It's all about money."
Willer, the Stanford sociologist, says the absence of political leaders brave enough to try to steer the country onto a better path means it will be left up to voters to break the cycle. Until then, the divisions will only get deeper.
Some already casting votes for the Nov. 6 midterm election say they hope the system can self-correct. The future of the nation, the very concept of democracy, is at stake.
"America is resilient; we find a way even in our darkest days," 36-year-old Cordell Lawrence said as he voted last week in Louisville. Lawrence described himself only as a moderate, preferring not to make public what party he leans to because he worries that could hinder personal and professional relationships.
"Maybe we have to hit rock bottom before we find how to get back up," he said. "We're probably pretty close to rock bottom today. At least I hope we are."
Sao Paulo, Oct 28 (AP/UNB) — In the last public appearance by a Brazilian presidential candidate before Sunday's election, left-leaning Fernando Haddad warned voters that his far-right opponent's proposals to fight crime would only increase violence.
Haddad also promised to bring conciliation if he beats front-runner Jair Bolsonaro, who stayed in his home in Rio de Janeiro speaking to his voters via social media.
Haddad, who polls indicate is the underdog in the runoff, spoke during a rally in Heliopolis, Sao Paulo's biggest favela with more than 100,000 residents. Violent areas of big cities gave Bolsonaro less votes in the Oct. 7 first-round than safer and wealthier areas.
"Arming the population, like my adversary suggests, will only increase violence. Can you imagine children and women bearing guns too? My adversary's ideas have already been tested in other countries and the number of homicides only picked up," Haddad said.
Later the candidate hand-picked by jailed former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said this Brazilian election would be different from any other if Bolsonaro loses at the last minute.
"That would be the victory of a project, not of a person or a party. It would be a vote for democracy and freedom," Haddad said during a discussion in social media.
Two polls published later on Saturday showed Bolsonaro's advantage falling once more, but still comfortable enough to win.
A Datafolha poll showed Bolsonaro with 55 percent and Haddad with 45. The pollster interviewed 18,371 voters on Friday and Saturday. The margin of error is of two percentage points.
Haddad suffered a blow when defeated presidential candidate Ciro Gomes, a leftist who finished the first-round in third place with 12 percent of the vote, failed to strongly support the Workers' Party candidate.
"Everybody wanted me, with my style, to pick a side and take part in the campaign," Gomes said in a video. "But I don't want to do this now for a reason that is very practical and I don't want to say it now. If I can't help, I don't want to get in the way."
Without a clear endorsement from Gomes, Haddad made a surprising nod to right-leaning defeated presidential candidate Geraldo Alckmin, saying he gave the inspiration to one of his proposals to cut cooking gas prices.
The left-leaning candidate also received two surprising endorsements from a former chief justice and an ex-top prosecutor who took harsh measures against Haddad's Workers' Party. Joaquim Barbosa and Rodrigo Janot said Bolsonaro is a threat to Brazil's democracy.
Although Bolsonaro kept quiet at his home in Rio de Janeiro most of the day, his legal team was active. The far-right candidate filed a suit in Brazil's top electoral court requesting an investigation into Haddad and newspaper Folha de S.Paulo.
Bolsonaro claims the daily falsely reported that businessmen illegally sponsored WhatsApp messages against Haddad to help Bolsonaro.
Folha's attorney called Bolsonaro's request "a ridiculous fantasy."
Pittsburgh, Oct 28 (AP/UNB) — During the week, anyone who wanted to get inside Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue had to ring the doorbell and be granted entry by staff because the front door was kept locked. Not so on Saturday — the Jewish Sabbath — when the building was open for worship.
A gunman who had expressed hatred of Jews exploited that vulnerability, so common in so many houses of worship across the country, in a singularly horrific way.
Armed with a rifle and three handguns, Robert Bowers walked inside the synagogue during Saturday morning worship and began shooting, killing 11 and wounding six before police took him into custody, officials said. It was the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history, according to the leader of the Anti-Defamation League.
Bowers traded gunfire with police and was shot multiple times but survived. He was charged late Saturday with 29 federal counts, including weapons offenses and hate crimes. Law enforcement officials planned to discuss the massacre at a news conference Sunday morning.
Four police officers were among the wounded.
The nation's latest mass shooting drew condemnation and expressions of sympathy from politicians and religious leaders of all stripes. With the midterm election just over a week away, it also reignited a longstanding and bitter debate over guns. President Donald Trump said the outcome might have been different if the synagogue "had some kind of protection" from an armed guard, while Pennsylvania's Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, up for re-election, noted that once again "dangerous weapons are putting our citizens in harm's way."
Calling the shooting an "evil anti-Semitic attack," Trump ordered flags at federal buildings throughout the U.S. to be flown at half-staff in respect for the victims. He said he planned to travel to Pittsburgh, but offered no details.
In the city, thousands gathered for a vigil Saturday night. Some blamed the slaughter on the nation's political climate.
"When you spew hate speech, people act on it. Very simple. And this is the result. A lot of people dead. Senselessly," said Stephen Cohen, co-president of New Light Congregation, which rents space at Tree of Life.
The shooting raised immediate alarm in Jewish communities around the country. Authorities in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia and other cities sent extra patrols to synagogues and other houses of worship.
Little was known about Bowers, who had no apparent criminal record but who is believed to have expressed virulently anti-Semitic views on social media. Authorities said it appears he acted alone.
Worshippers "were brutally murdered by a gunman targeting them simply because of their faith," said Bob Jones, head of the FBI's Pittsburgh office, though he cautioned the shooter's full motive was not yet known.
Scott Brady, the chief federal prosecutor in western Pennsylvania, pledged that "justice in this case will be swift and it will be severe."
It wasn't clear if Bowers had an attorney to speak on his behalf.
The gunman targeted a building that housed three separate congregations, all of which were conducting Sabbath services when the attack began just before 10 a.m. in the tree-lined residential neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, about 10 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh and the hub of Pittsburgh's Jewish community.
The synagogue door was unlocked on the Sabbath "because people are coming for services, and the bell would be ringing constantly. So they do not lock the door, and anybody can just walk in," said Marilyn Honigsberg, administrative assistant for New Light. "And that's what this man did."
Michael Eisenberg, the immediate past president of the Tree of Life, said synagogue officials had not gotten any threats that he knew of before the shooting. But he said security was a concern, and the synagogue had started working to improve it.
"You know, you're always worried that something would happen," said Myron Snider, head of the cemetery committee for New Light. Snider just got out of the hospital on Thursday and missed Saturday's service.
"But you never dream that it would happen like this," Snider added. "Just never ever dream that it would happen like this."
Zachary Weiss, 26, said his father, 60-year-old Stephen Weiss, was inside the synagogue but was unharmed. Weiss said his father told him that he and Tree of Life's rabbi helped congregants take shelter and follow the active shooter response training they'd received months earlier. Stephen Weiss made it out of the building and used a janitor's cellphone to call his family at home.
The attack, his son vowed, "will not define our congregation and will not define our city."
Pittsburgh, Oct 27 (AP/UNB) — A shooter opened fire during a baby naming ceremony at a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday, killing several people and wounding six others including four police officers who dashed to the scene, authorities said.
Police said a suspect was in custody after the attack at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood. A law enforcement official identified the suspect as Robert Bowers and said he is in his 40s. The official wasn't authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Police said "several" people were killed. Six were wounded, including the four police officers, said Wendell Hissrich, the Pittsburgh public safety director.
"It is a very horrific crime scene. It was one of the worst that I've seen. It is very bad," Hissrich said.
The attack took place during a baby naming ceremony, according to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. It was unknown whether the attack harmed the baby.
The synagogue is located at the intersection of Wilkins and Shady avenues. The tree-lined residential neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, about 10 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh, is the hub of Pittsburgh's Jewish community.
At least until the suspect was taken into custody, the neighborhood and all synagogues in the city were in a lockdown, with people ordered to remain indoors.
President Donald Trump called the shooting "far more devastating than anyone thought," saying "it's a terrible thing what's going on with hate in our country."
But Trump said the outcome would have been different if the synagogue had an armed guard.
"They didn't have any protection," he told reporters at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland.
Offering a different take, Pennsylvania Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, called the shooting an "absolute tragedy" in a statement that made reference to calls for tighter gun control laws.
"We must all pray and hope for no more loss of life," Wolf said. "But we have been saying "this one is too many" for far too long. Dangerous weapons are putting our citizens in harm's way."
World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder called the shooting "an attack not just on the Jewish community, but on America as a whole."
In 2010, Tree of Life Congregation — founded more than 150 years ago — merged with Or L'Simcha to form Tree of Life (asterisk) Or L'Simcha.
The synagogue is a fortress-like concrete building, its facade punctuated by rows of swirling, modernistic stained-glass windows illustrating the story of creation, the acceptance of God's law, the "life cycle" and "how human-beings should care for the earth and one another," according to its website. Among its treasures is a "Holocaust Torah," rescued from Czechoslovakia.
Its sanctuary can hold up to 1,250 guests.
Jeff Finkelstein of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh said local synagogues have done "lots of training on things like active shooters, and we've looked at hardening facilities as much as possible."
"This should not be happening, period," he told reporters at the scene. "This should not be happening in a synagogue."
Just three days before the shooting, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers posted a column on the congregation's website, noting that people make time to attend funerals, but not for life's happy occasions.
"There is a story told in the Talmud of a wedding procession and a funeral procession heading along parallel roads, with the roads intersecting," Myers wrote on Wednesday. "The question asked is: when they meet at the fork, which procession goes first, funeral or wedding? The correct answer is wedding, as the joy of the couple takes precedence. In fact, the funeral procession is to move out of sight so that their joy is not lessened."
Myers ended his column with words that now seem all too prescient.
"We value joy so much in Judaism that upon taking our leave from a funeral or a shiva house, the customary statement one makes (in Yiddish) is 'nor oyf simches' - only for s'machot," Myers wrote. "While death is inevitable and a part of life, we still take our leave with the best possible blessing, to meet at joyous events. And so I say to you: nor oyf simches!"