For the first time in five years, the state of South Dakota carried out capital punishment Oct. 15.
Eric Robert, 50, was executed by lethal injection and was officially declared dead by coroners at 10:24 p.m. Robert was sentenced to death for the murder of a prison guard in a failed escape from the S.D. State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls in spring 2011.
According to The Argus Leader, in the two hours leading up to the execution, three South Dakota groups against capital punishment held a candlelight vigil outside the state penitentiary training center, the building where prison guard Ronald Johnson was murdered by Robert. The South Dakota Peace and Justice Center, Pax Christie and South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (SDAPD), made up an attendance of roughly 50 people. Similar vigils were held in Pierre, Rapid City and in Danforth Chapel in Vermillion.
Travis Schulze, board member and current coordinator of vigils for SDAPD, said the goal of the vigils was to stand in solidarity and pay respect to Robert and those like him who have faced death row.
“We stood in a circle and prayed and sang,” Schulze said. “We hoped that he (Robert) wouldn’t be executed.”
After officials declared Robert was dead, Schulze said the group was saddened to hear another case of capital punishment had occurred.
“It was kind of a disappointing night and hopefully in the future there won’t be any more executions,” Schulze said.
The execution of Robert was the first of two scheduled this month. The next execution is scheduled for Oct. 28, when the state will put to death Donald Moeller, who was convicted of the rape and murder of a nine-year-old in 1990.
For students at the University of South Dakota, the validity of capital punishment varies.
Knowing where one stands on the issue can sometimes become muddled, Elizabeth Smith, a political science professor who teaches a class on the death penalty said.
“Students come to the university with a broad range of views on the death penalty,” Smith said. “Some are for it, others are against it, while others have yet to form an opinion.”
First-year student Lara Williams said she heard about Robert’s sentence yesterday in one of her classes, and said capital punishment is an important aspect to South Dakota’s government.
“I’m for the death penalty, because if people commit a crime like murder, it’s only fair to take a life for a life,” Williams said.
Williams said even though she is for the death penalty, it is important for others, like those at the vigils, to be able to openly express their beliefs.
Sophomore Whitney Redler said she does not see the death penalty as an effective means of punishment because it clashes with her upbringing.
“I’m against the death penalty because it’s against my religion,” Redler said.
She said inmates should just be sentenced to prison for life.
First-year Aaron Clark said he does not really have a stance on the death penalty because it does not affect him.
“I’m not that involved in it,” Clark said.
Smith said the controversies surrounding capital punishment often deal with much more than just politics.
“People’s beliefs about justice run very, very deep,” she said. “It really is one of the difficult questions facing states in part because we all have strong personal beliefs.”