Stphen Edward Wood, 38, was pronounced dead at 12:21 a.m. at the
Oklahoma State Penitentiary.
He made no final statement.
He joined the growing ranks of Oklahoma death row
inmates who chose death over several years of appeals. Wood became the
second Oklahoma inmate executed this year and the 11th since the state
resumed the execution process in 1990. All of those have been by lethal
He was executed for the 1994 prison slaying of the
Rev. Robert Bruce Brigden, a former Presbyterian pastor from Alva who
was serving time for molesting girls. At the time of Brigden's slaying,
Wood was serving a sentence of life without parole for killing two
transients in 1992 in Lincoln County.
Like 3 other killers since 1995, Wood chose earlier
this year to waive his remaining appeals. At his competency hearing in
May, Wood told a judge he had long supported the death penalty.
"Just because it's me ... my feelings haven't
changed. As a matter of fact, it's strengthened them," he told the
Wood's decision prompted two groups that oppose the
death penalty to question why Oklahoma has such a disproportionate
number of death row inmates who choose execution over appeals.
Nationally, 12 percent, or 60 of the 472 inmates who
have been executed since the death penalty was resurrected in 1976, were
volunteers. With Wood's execution, Oklahoma's figure rose to 36 percent.
Among states that have performed 10 to 20 executions
in the modern era, South Carolina and Arizona have the next- highest
percentage of volunteers with 27 and 25 percent, respectively.
Officials with Amnesty International and the Death
Penalty Information Center believe the conditions on Oklahoma's
underground death row building, called H-Unit, play a significant role
in the volunteerism.
Since 1994, Amnesty International has been criticizing
H- Unit, calling it a violation of American and international standards.
The building's "extreme conditions" include
"tiny, concrete, windowless rooms with no natural light or fresh
air ventilation," said Kevin Acers, president of the group's
Oklahoma City chapter. He said the large number of condemned inmates
should be "a yellow flag."
"We are not asking for a country club for
prisoners. We demand, however, better than a dungeon," Acers said.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death
Penalty Information in Washington, D.C., said he also thinks the
building plays a factor, although he has not visited it.
Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson bristled.
"I don't know what you could do to death row to
make it so inviting that people would want to stay there longer. Prison
is not meant to be attractive," he said.
For inmates who are locked in their cells 23 hours a
day, choosing to die is one of the few things they can control.
Edmondson said that could explain why some inmates waive their appeals.
However, he took issue with Amnesty International's
claim of a wide disparity in the appeal-waiver rate. Only 4 of the 145
inmates on Oklahoma's death row have done so, he said.
"I don't think that number is large enough to
make any statistical conclusions yet," he said.
Edmondson said changes in state and federal law could
account for some inmates deciding to die early. He said increased
restrictions on appeals make it more attractive for a prisoner to choose
State corrections spokesman Jerry Massie said he
couldn't explain the statistical disparity, but said he doubts the
conditions of H-Unit are much of a factor.
Father Don Brooks, who objects to the death penalty,
offers another explanation. Brooks said inmates are packed in so tightly
that they may decide to waive appeals because their fellow inmates are
The number of Oklahoma inmates choosing that route
troubles him, "partly for their sake, but partly for what it does
to the justice system."
Brooks, representing the Catholic Diocese of Tulsa,
was outside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary keeping vigil Tuesday night
with a small group of protesters.
Brooks said the appeals process is important to
prevent innocent people from being executed.
Wood spent his final hours much as he had spent his
six years in prison -- quietly. After spending part of Monday visiting
his brother and sister-in-law, Wood saw a minister and his attorney
Tuesday but declined TV and phone access.
Wood became the first inmate since James French in
1966 to be executed for killing another state inmate.
French was the last person to die in Oklahoma's
Brigden, 59, had been housed at the Oklahoma State
Reformatory in Granite for less than a month when was stabbed 7 times
with a homemade knife. He was serving a 40-year sentence for eight
counts of lewd molestation and one count of rape by instrumentation.
Brigden's family later sued the Corrections Department
over his death, claiming prison officials knew his life was in jeopardy
but failed to protect him. A federal judge tossed out the lawsuit in
1996, partially because Brigden had refused prison officials' offer to
move him to protective custody. The family is appealing.
Source: The Daily Oklahoman & Joan Brett.
In 1992, Mr. Brigden was convicted in
Woods County, Oklahoma, of eight counts of lewd molestation and one
count of rape by instrumentation and was sentenced to 60 years'
imprisonment. On August 25, 1992, he arrived at the Oklahoma State
Reformatory to begin serving his sentence.
The next morning he was
attacked in the prison yard by other inmates apparently because of the
nature of his crime, which involved children, and its attendant
publicity. He then requested and was placed in protective custody, an
area of the prison fenced off from the general population. Prison staff
supported Mr. Brigden's placement in protective custody due to the
nature of his offense, rating his victim potential as high. Appellants'
App. at 42. According to the record submitted to us, Mr. Brigden's
incarceration then proceeded without complaint or incident for the next
In 1994 the Department of Corrections sought to make
various operating and housing efficiencies to accommodate the ever-growing
inmate population in the system. One such change involved closing the
protective custody unit at OSR and centralizing protective custody
housing at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary (OSP). Planning in this
regard was detailed, as shown by the following excerpts from an April 1,
1994, memorandum from James L. Saffle, Regional Director of the
Southeastern Region, to Larry Fields, Director of the Department of
2. We believe we can increase medium security beds by
moving the protective custody beds from the Oklahoma State Reformatory
to the Penitentiary. According to the daily system count, we would have
approximately 27 beds for growth, if our protective custody count
remained the same, and they were all housed at the Penitentiary.
We decided to give the inmates at OSR the option to
come off protection, prior to any movement of the protective custody
unit to the Penitentiary. There is belief that many of the inmates will
choose to remain at OSR.
Our plan is to move the protection unit off of F-4 at
the Penitentiary and place all protective custody inmates on D and E
Units, which will provide 160 beds, and better protection, due to the
isolation from other units, and individual exercise areas. F-4 would
then be used for general housing.
The movement from the F Cellhouse would assist us in
better utilizing the current vacant beds that are on the protection unit.
We are consistently running 25 beds vacant, which we desperately need to
In conjunction with the dismantling of the protective
custody fence at OSR, Warden Cowley announced the planned removal during
a scheduled weekly video broadcast to all inmates. The warden told the
inmates that the fences were down and that inmates previously housed in
protective custody who chose to stay at OSR should be treated with
respect. The protective custody unit fence at OSR was removed on May 15,
1994, and Mr. Brigden was housed in the general population.
Two weeks later, on May 31, 1992, he complained to
staff that he was being intimidated by other inmates. The write-up of
the complaint uses the term "bulldogged," without further elaboration.
Appellants' App. at 49. Inmates housed in the area testified at the
trial of Brigden's killer that the killer and others were going to
Brigden's cell almost daily after the fence came down to harass and rob
him. Appellants' App. at 81-82. However, none of them testified that
they reported the incidents to the defendants, except to the prison
chaplain, Ron Roskom.
When Mr. Brigden complained to the staff that he was
being "bulldogged," the defendant, Lt. Wayne Morey, offered to move him
to A-1-Pod for protection, but Brigden declined in writing, stating: "I
Robert Brigden DOC# 207536, does [sic] acknowledge that protection was
offered to me and I declined the offer to be moved to A-1-Pod to serve
that purpose." Id. at 49. The A-1-Pod was the disciplinary
There is evidence that Mr. Brigden either at that
time, or generally contemporaneous to the events in question, expressed
complaints or concerns to Lt. Morey about being robbed by the inmates
who were harassing him, and that Lt. Morey had instructed him to report
any such incident. Id. at 88.
In the early evening on June 12, 1994, another inmate,
Stephen Edward Wood, entered Mr. Brigden's cell (at OSR cell doors are
unlocked during the day) and attempted to rob him of his wristwatch.
When Brigden refused to hand over his watch, Wood stabbed him to death,
inflicting multiple wounds with a "shank." Id. at 58, 88-89.
The guard on duty in the "A" unit was Terry Duane New,
one of the defendants in this case. His shift was 3:00 p.m. to 11:00
p.m. Officer New testified at Wood's trial that at about 6:15 p.m. he
noticed Mr. Brigden's cell door standing open. New did not consider that
to be normal, so he walked down and looked in on Brigden, who seemed
fine. New then sat by Brigden's door for a little while, but noticed
nothing unusual, and Brigden did not say anything.
However, New testified he had a strange feeling, so
he went up on the roof to observe the activity in the yard. After a
while he heard a scream, followed by three more screams. As he started
off the roof, he saw a knife thrown out. Id. at 73-75. Mr.
Brigden was dead. The knife was connected to Wood, who was ultimately
tried and convicted of the murder.
Eternal fate of son’s killer
prompted mother’s outreach
By Bob Nigh - Baptist Press
CLINTON, Okla. (BP)--Stephen
Edward Wood’s violent tendencies no doubt earned him few close friends
during his nearly 40 years on this earth. Aside from his family, he
probably was unloved by many of those he came into contact with, but
especially by those whose lives he shattered.
Wood, who was sentenced to
life in prison without parole after pleading guilty to two murders in
1992, later received the death sentence for a third homicide committed
while he was incarcerated at the Oklahoma State Reformatory in Granite
in 1994. He was executed by lethal injection Aug. 5, 1998.
But, while Wood was required
to pay his debt to society with his life, it was the eternal destination
of his immortal soul that was of chief concern to Jane Stephens of
If anyone had justification
to want Wood executed, it was Stephens, along with her husband, Denvil,
because in the early morning hours of Nov. 28, 1992, Wood tore their
hearts open by stabbing to death their oldest son, Charles, whom they
called Rusty. In an apparent drunken rage, Wood took Rusty’s life, along
with that of Charles Van Johnson.
The attack was especially
savage. Wood stabbed Rusty 55 times and Johnson 62 times. Their bodies
were abandoned beneath a Lincoln County bridge, not too far from Cushing,
where all three men had been working on a woodcutting crew that fateful
Still, after losing her son,
and then, to her horror, seeing the perpetrator later murder another
person, Jane Stephens was driven by her faith in God to try to make sure
her son’s murderer faced an eternity in heaven and not hell.
Her story is one of both
courage and encouragement, but most of all, it’s a story of how God’s
grace can change the vengeful human heart and make it a vessel of
compassion, even for those who have harmed you the most.
Stephen Wood was convicted of
the June 12, 1994, murder of Robert Bruce Brigden, former minister of
First Presbyterian Church of Alva, Okla., who had been found guilty of
child molestation and was serving a 40-year term at the reformatory in
Granite. Wood was given the death penalty on July 6, 1995, and after
going through the customary first round of appeals, he waived further
appeals and asked that his execution be carried out immediately.
That’s when Jane Stephens’
Christlike heart propelled her into action.
“After I received a copy of
his letter to the Oklahoma attorney general seeking to waive his appeals,
I went by the church to see my pastor, Brother James [Robinson],”
Stephens, a member of First Baptist Church, Clinton, said. “He wasn’t
in, so I shared the letter with Doug Lewis, our youth minister.
“I told Doug that while I
believed that justice had to be served, I did care for Stephen Wood’s
soul and wondered if he knew the Lord as his Savior.”
An attempt to get permission
for Robinson and Lewis to visit Wood at the State Penitentiary in
McAlester was refused when the warden said it wasn’t a good idea. The
next step was letters to Wood from both Stephens and Lewis, the latter
in behalf of the church.
“We never expected to hear
back from him, but two or three weeks later, he responded,” Lewis
recalled. “He said the last people he ever expected to hear from were
the family members and church of one of the people he had killed. He
expressed remorse for the incident and thanked our church for being
concerned about his salvation.”
But the ramifications of the
effort didn’t end there.
A few weeks later, as the
execution date approached, Wood’s sister wrote to Lewis. Her condemned
brother had forwarded Lewis’ letter to her.
“She, too, was amazed at the
compassion expressed for her brother, and shared that she was a new
Christian who had been encouraged by the Stephenses’ concern about his
eternal destiny,” Lewis said.
“That just reminds us that
our attempts to minister to others have far-reaching consequences and
effects that we never think about. We really never know just how far our
witness will go, if we will just try.”
Lewis said the Stephenses’
effort to reach out to Wood illustrates the life-changing power of the
“It’s nothing short of God
changing a heart that would bring Jane and Denvil to care about Stephen
Wood’s eternity,” Lewis said. “That’s an attribute that comes from a
lifetime walk with Christ. I know if I lost one of my children, I
wouldn’t wish for the murderer to go to hell, but I’m not sure I would
have had the initiative to make sure he or she had an adequate hearing
of the gospel.
“All the credit has to go to
God for his life-changing, heart-changing ability.”
“I would encourage people to
forgive,” Stephens said, “because each of us is a sinner.
“I didn’t murder someone, but I sinned in other ways. A true walk with
Jesus Christ is the only thing that can change you,” she said.
“Also, we need to witness at
all times, because you never know what kind of ripple effect your
witness is going to have.”
Only Stephen Wood and the
Lord know for sure whether he was saved before the needle was inserted
into his arm in August 1998. But Jane Stephens hopes he was. “I don’t
really know, but I think I saw evidence that he was [saved],” she said.
As for the end of Wood’s life,
both Stephens and Lewis were allowed to attend the execution. Under a
new law, Stephens was the first person in Oklahoma allowed to view the
execution of an inmate, other than the family of the person for which he
or she was sentenced to death.
“I asked Doug to go with me,
and I’m glad I went. I went for the right reasons. Justice was served,”
she said, noting it also “has certainly helped bring closure to me.”
The road to “closure” indeed
has been difficult for Jane Stephens, who has borne the larger burden of
the process. At the conclusion of preliminary hearings in Wood’s case
involving their son in 1993, Denvil was diagnosed with colon cancer with
lesions also found on his liver. He was given six months to live.
“His declining health has
prevented him from taking as active a part as he would have liked to,”
Jane said. “This whole thing hasn’t been easy, but God’s grace has
always been sufficient.”
Denvil, meanwhile, has beaten
the odds and the doctors’ predictions and is still going strong. He
loves to sing and is an active member of the church’s senior adult choir.
Since her son was killed,
Stephens has become active in Prison Fellowship and acts as an advocate
to other victims of violent crime. While soft-spoken and not a public
speaker, per se, she relates well to others one-on-one and has counseled
several others who have lost family members.
“I try to do what I can
quietly,” she said. “I go where God leads me.”
She has a fount of knowledge
about services available to families of victims of violent crime and, of
course, an understanding of what they are going through.
“Not many people know about
the services that are available to them,” she said.
“Unfortunately, through a lot
of hard knocks, I have learned about some of them.”
Both Stephens and Lewis would
like to see churches become more involved in prison ministries across
Oklahoma. “I know we have some outstanding chaplains, and some churches
are doing some things in the prisons, but we as a denomination could be
much more involved,” Lewis said.
“As Christians, we can take a
stand and say we believe in the death penalty and not be afraid that
we’re being inconsistent,” he added. “Each of us makes choices that must
be paid for here on earth, but we must encourage people to know they can
let Christ pay their price for eternity.”
Said Robinson, “What we have
seen through all of this is the absolute worst that could happen in a
person’s life and the absolute best that can result from God’s grace. He
has used Jane in so many ways through this.
“We live in a hopeless world
without Christ, and you see that illustrated so well in a courtroom
setting and in the circumstances of a death penalty. From the human
standpoint, that’s the depth of hopelessness,” Robinson said.
Jane Stephens misses her son,
Rusty, every day, and she always will. But she praises a God who has
given her and Denvil the strength to make it through such a tragedy.
“I am not a saint and have no wish to be portrayed as such,” she said.
“I'm just a forgiven sinner, and I’d encourage others to use whatever
happens to them to help others, and to bless themselves by forgiving
those who wronged them.”