HARJO heads to death chamber Tuesday night for Seminole County woman's strangulation

Tuesday, July 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Mary Branscum waited out a thunderstorm with her mother, then took her home to the rural frame house just up the road.

That was the last time Branscum saw her mother, Ruth Porter, alive.

Jerald Wayne Harjo had waited out the storm, too _ in Porter's van, parked outside her Seminole County house. He watched her come home.

Then he climbed through a window to look for the van's keys and smothered Porter with her own pillow. Investigators also believe she was raped.

On Tuesday night, Harjo, 40, is set to pay with his life for the Jan. 17, 1988, murder of the 64-year-old elementary school secretary and grandmother.

He is scheduled to die by injection at 9 p.m. Tuesday at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. He would become the 15th person executed in Oklahoma's death chamber this year and the 44th since capital punishment resumed in the state in 1976.

Branscum found her mother dead in bed when she came to check on her early the next day. She can't forget that final image.

Branscum remembers dialing the telephone and struggling to tell the rest of the family they never would see Porter again. It was hardest telling her father, who was in a Memphis, Tenn., hospital after being 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. ``My father did not have the same light in his eyes and joy in his heart after his wife was murdered.''

Branscum's dad died in 1993, five years after his wife was murdered.

``He asked that my husband and I see the process through for him,'' she said.

Porter was known throughout Seminole County as everybody's grandmother, devoted member of the First Baptist Church in Sasakwa and a good cook.

Harjo knew her from his school days in Sasakwa. Former Sheriff Charles Sisco, one of the first at the crime scene, knew her too.

``There are things about crime scenes that you never forget,'' he said. ``This was especially close to my heart because I had known her and her family.''

Harjo had been smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol the night he decided to ride his bicycle to his brother's house in Wewoka, the former sheriff said. A thunderstorm made him ditch the bicycle just north of Sasakwa, next to Porter's 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 Porter's spare bedroom.

Sisco said he thinks Harjo went inside looking for keys to the van, then decided to rape and strangle Porter.

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.

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

The jury that recommended the death sentence heard the tape and testimony from a trooper who said he saw Harjo riding down the highway on a bicycle.

The murder rocked the small community of Sasakwa and Seminole County.

``Our community is a small one where everybody knows their neighbor and one is a neighbor even if you live several miles away,'' Porter's daughter said. ``The impact of her death in the community was widespread.''

The woman's family says they've been changed forever by her death.

``Our family hasn't been the same since her death and the worst part about it to me is it happened in her home, and that reminder is there all the time and will always be there,'' said daughter-in-law Janie Porter.

Harjo isn't planning any final appeals to spare his life, said his attorney, John Stuart of Duncan. He waived his right to a clemency hearing because he didn't want to put his family through the stress.

``There are always last-minute things that you can try,'' Stuart said Monday. ``As far as anything that's feasible, no, there's nothing left.''

Stuart and one of Harjo's former attorneys plan to watch him die Tuesday. He asked his family not to come.

Harjo is allowed to visit with his relatives in the hours before his death.

He has requested a last meal of two hamburgers, one cheeseburger, two orders of fries and a vanilla malt.