PUBLIC AI Index: AMR 51/73/00
EXTRA 48/00 Death penalty / Legal concern 18 May 2000
USA (Oklahoma)Roger James Berget, white, aged 39
Roger Berget is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on 8 June 2000
in Oklahoma. He was sentenced to death in 1987 for the 1985 murder of Rick
Patterson. His clemency hearing before the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board
is scheduled for 30 May.
Roger Berget was arrested in August 1986 following a spate of burglaries,
allegedly committed by him and another man, Scott Thornton. During questioning,
Thornton apparently told police that they should question Berget about a 1985
murder. Roger Berget subsequently told police that he and Mikell “Bulldog”
Smith had abducted Rick Patterson in his car in October 1985, and indicated
that Smith had shot Patterson.
The prosecutor agreed not to seek the death penalty against Berget if he would
plead guilty to first-degree murder and testify against Smith. Under this
agreement, Berget would be sentenced to consecutive life prison terms. Berget
agreed, but changed his mind after meeting Smith when they were held in the
same jail. He said that he would refuse to testify against Smith and would
instead accept sole responsibility for the murder. He pleaded guilty, and was
sentenced to death at a sentencing hearing before a judge in March 1987. Mikell
Smith was himself sentenced to death at a jury trial, but this was later reversed
to life imprisonment on appeal. Smith has since been convicted of two killings
of fellow inmates and the attempted murder of a guard, and is serving further
life sentences without parole for these crimes. Other than at his own and Smith’s
trials, Roger Berget has consistently maintained that it was Smith who shot
Roger Berget’s trial lawyer has signed an affidavit acknowledging that his
representation of Berget was inadequate, due to a combination of his
inexperience, his workload, and because “my other clients facing a death
sentence very much wanted to live, while Roger did not much seem to care”.
He admitted failing to fully investigate and present evidence of Berget’s
history of non-violent behaviour in criminal partnerships with more aggressive
men (for example, Berget had once talked Thornton out of killing a man during
a burglary), his model behaviour when serving previous prison terms, or his
mental state when he decided to plead guilty. Berget, who reportedly suffers
from manic depressive illness (bipolar disorder), had attempted suicide shortly
before the sentencing hearing. The lawyer stated in his affidavit: “I simply
did not understand the importance of mental health evidence to present a full
picture...this entire area was left uninvestigated.”
The lawyer admitted that he failed to investigate Roger Berget’s abusive
childhood: “There were indicators of serious childhood trauma that should have
been investigated and explored by an expert...His juvenile [criminal] history
was presented in a vacuum, without any explanation of Roger’s terrible home
environment...”. Roger Berget grew up in a very dysfunctional family in South
Dakota. The son of an abusive alcoholic father, Berget ran away from home at
an early age to live in an abandoned house nearby. His mother would bring him
food there, but when his father found out he beat both the mother and the boy.
At the age of 14, Roger Berget suffered a serious head injury in a car accident.
At 15 he was sent to adult prison to begin the first of a number of prison
sentences for robbery. He met both Thornton and Smith in prison.