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Stephen Edward WOOD

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

   
 
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Drunken rage - Revenge
Number of victims: 3
Date of murders: November 28, 1992 / June 12, 1994
Date of birth: 1960
Victims profile: Charles Van Johnson and Charles Stephens / Rev. Robert Bruce Brigden (inmate)
Method of murder: Stabbing with knife / Stabbing with a "shank"
Location: Lincoln County, Oklahoma, USA
Status: Executed by lethal injection in Oklahoma on August 5, 1998
 
 

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 injection.

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 judge.

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 death sooner.

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 doing so.

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 electric chair.

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.

 
 

Background

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 21 months.

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 Corrections:

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 fill.

*****

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 housing unit.

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

Aug 23, 1999

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 Clinton, Okla.

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 Saturday.

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 gospel.

“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.”

 

 
 
 
 
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