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Deadly Force, Urgent Necessity and Killing Prisoners

Sep 21, 2011

I note with regret that I have been party to the killing of two men in the last two months. I hope to avoid being party to a third killing.

On August 2, Rapid City police officers killed Daniel Tiger. On September 6, a South Dakota Highway Patrol officer killed Cody Engen. Both Tiger and Engen posed an immediate threat to public safety. Both were armed. Tiger was firing his weapon and had already mortally wounded two police officers. Engen was shooting, destroying property, and threatening officers. 

Both men needed to be stopped. We stopped them. We, through the police officers we empower through our democratic laws, killed them. Urgent necessity justified deadly force.

On April 12, South Dakota Penitentiary guard Ronald Johnson died at the hands of convicted felon Eric Robert. On September 16, Robert confessed to that murder. Robert spoke of his crime with cold pretense, claiming he planned to “eliminate one of my oppressors,” then saying he “executed” the prison guard. Robert said he tried to grab a guard’s assault rifle so he could “continue to shoot officers.”

If guards had come upon Robert as he attacked Officer Johnson, if it had appeared that verbal commands or non-lethal force could not have stopped him, killing Robert would have been justified. However, Robert has been stopped. We, through the state, have disarmed and confined him. His crime has prompted review and strengthening of security measures in the Pen. If our prison system works properly, Robert will no longer pose an immediate threat to anyone.

When civilized means fail, deadly force is our last resort. In a street shoot-out, there is no time for civilized means. But in a prison, where a confessed killer is subdued by strong men and strong bars, we have time for civilized means.

We don’t need to kill Eric Robert to protect ourselves. Quite the contrary: to protect ourselves from avoidable blood on our hands, we need to keep Robert alive, in a cell, alone, for the rest of his days, under the watchful eye of a civilized state.

Cory Allen Heidelberger writes the Madville Times political blog. He grew up on the shores of Lake Herman. He studied math and history at SDSU and information systems at DSU, and is currently teaching French at Spearfish High School. A longtime country dweller, Cory is enjoying "urban" living with his family in Spearfish.


09:26 am - Wed, September 21 2011
John Andrews said:
I've always thought it would be far more torturous for a felon to spend the rest of his life in a tiny cell as opposed to being executed.
11:20 am - Wed, September 21 2011
Steve Tamesak said:
It's absolutely awful when some deranged and mentally ill person, either in a tantrum or planned, takes the live of another person.

In my mind it's even worth when a sane and supposedly civilized population (us, the state) methodically take the live of another person.

And we say we're pro-life in SD?

Killing always says more about the aggressor than the victim. What does this say about us as a people? It sickens me to be part of it. Sickens me.
01:23 pm - Wed, September 21 2011
Bernie Hunhoff said:
Well said, Cory. I agree with Al Sharpton who said today from Georgia that states should at the very least agree that we not execute people on only eyewitness testimony and nothing else (which is apparently the case down there). We'll probably have to pick away at the death penalty ... as we've done in SD, setting age limits, etc. I doubt our cowboy culture is going to change overnight.
07:53 pm - Wed, September 21 2011
[Oops! I tried including a link and ended up losing the rest of my comment. Here's the full text intended above:]

Thanks, Bernie. Worth noting: our cowboy culture messed up the first execution conducted by state/territorial-level officials on our turf. In 1882, our forebears dropped Thomas Egan three times from the gallows before snapping his neck... only to discover years later that they ahd executed an innocent man (see link below).

Good point, Steve: the methodical killing of a subdued prisoner troubles my conscience.

John, I too want to see the worst convicts face the torture of their conscience for all their natural years. But I wonder: if we can quantify torture, and if living with one's guilt really is more "torturous" than death, might we argue that a life sentence is more barbaric than a "merciful" death sentence? (I'm not reneging on my original position; I'm genuinely curious about the implications of the words you use above, John!)

Read more on Thomas Egan:

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