HARJO executed for Seminole County woman's strangulation

Wednesday, July 18th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

McALESTER, Okla. (AP) _ The family of a Sasakwa grandmother peered through tinted glass as the man who smothered her with a pillow gasped for air and died on a gurney.

Jerald Wayne Harjo's feet shook under a white sheet draped over his body in Oklahoma's death chamber. His eyelids fluttered when he closed them after telling the warden, ``Uh, no,'' when asked if he had any last words.

Harjo, his long black hair lying against a pillow, took a breath, then snored slightly as the air left his lungs. He was dead by 9:10 p.m., about two minutes after a lethal cocktail pumped into his veins.

Harjo asked his family not to watch him die.

His attorney, John Stuart of Duncan, and a former attorney sat in the front row of the death chamber viewing room. Eight of 64-year-old Ruth Porter's relatives sat in back, behind one-sided glass so other witnesses could not see them.

``We know that this execution does not make up for what happened to our mother, aunt and grandmother, but Jerald Harjo made his choice and this is the price he must pay,'' the family said through a written statement Tuesday night.

``Our mother, aunt and grandmother did not deserve what happened to her, but the family takes comfort in knowing we will see her in Heaven one day. She is with us every day in our hearts.''

Harjo, 40, was the 14th person executed this year and the 44th since the state resumed the death penalty in 1976.

In his last hours, he visited with his attorney and a friend and ate his last meal: a cheeseburger, two hamburgers, two orders of fries, a 16-ounce Dr. Pepper and a large vanilla malt.

Harjo had been smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol the night of Jan. 16, 1988, when he decided to ride his bicycle to his brother's house in Wewoka, former Seminole County Sheriff Charles Sisco said. A thunderstorm made him ditch the bicycle just north of Sasakwa, next to Porter's rural frame house.

Harjo tried to hot-wire the woman's van, but couldn't.

Investigators believe he climbed through a window by stacking cement blocks outside one of Porter's windows.

A Wewoka police officer who knew Harjo was on a suspended sentence for stealing a car drove by Harjo's brother's home on a hunch and found the woman's van.

Harjo eventually confessed to the crime on audiotape after investigators found his muddy tennis shoe prints on Porter's floor, Sisco said.

Sisco said Harjo climbed into Porter's spare bedroom window to look for keys to her van. He wore a pillowcase over his face. When Porter awoke, he strangled her with his hands and smothered her with her own pillow.

Porter's daughter found her the next morning with a pillow over her face. Her windpipe was crushed, her face was scratched and bruised and her pubic hair was singed with a lighter. Investigators believe the Sasakwa elementary school secretary was raped.

Branscum watched Harjo's execution in part for her father, who died in 1993 and asked her to see the process to the end. Her father was in a Memphis, Tenn., hospital when his wife was murdered because he had been paralyzed in an auto accident years earlier.

``Never in his wildest dreams did he believe he would outlive her,'' Branscum wrote recently in a letter to the state attorney general's office.

Harjo made no last-ditch attempts to save his life. He waived his right to a clemency hearing because he didn't think it would spare his life and he didn't want to put his family through it, Stuart said.

Stuart said Harjo's execution was another example of why Oklahoma's death penalty system is flawed. Harjo was a Seminole Indian.

``We execute poor people,'' he said. ``And we execute minorities.''

A handful of death penalty protesters were arrested outside a branch of the attorney general's office in Oklahoma City about four hours before Harjo's execution. A small group protested just outside the prison gates in McAlester.

The next Oklahoma execution is scheduled for Aug. 28. Jack Dale Walker was convicted of the Dec. 30, 1988, murders of his girlfriend Shelley Deann Ellison, and her uncle, Donald Gary Epperson, in Bixby.

Alvie James Hale is scheduled to die Sept. 4 for the Oct. 11, 1983, kidnapping and murder of William Jeffrey Perry of Tecumseh.