MAN executed for 1983 jail killing

Wednesday, May 23rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

McALESTER, Okla. (AP) _ Terrance James could have left prison 13 years ago a free man. Instead, he was carried out Tuesday in a body bag, the 12th inmate put to death in Oklahoma this year.

James, 41, was pronounced dead at 9:06 p.m. from a lethal dose of drugs at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.

He faced a five-year prison sentence for stealing arms from a National Guard Armory in Durant in 1983. But he was convinced that co-defendant Mark Allen Berry snitched on him and their other accomplice, Dennis Earl Brown.

So James, of Durant, choked Berry to death with a wire in the former Muskogee City-Federal Jail and paid with his life instead of a five-year hitch.

On a death row gurney, James offered no explanations or apologies to Berry's family, saying he only wanted to nod to two female family members who witnessed the execution on his behalf.

Berry's family didn't expect apologies, but hoped for one.

James saying he was sorry ``would have been easier for me,'' said Mary J. Nelson, Berry's sister.

``My brother didn't have a choice,'' she said. ``He didn't choose to die and didn't want to die and leave three small children to grow up without a father. Terrance James made that choice for him and at the same time sealed his own fate.''

Molina Cheek, 22, was five when her father was killed and said she could remember him kissing and hugging her at night. After his death, she tearfully recalled, she would ask her mother when he was coming home.

Berry's now grown sons, Mark, 21, and Jason, 19, said they couldn't remember their father at all.

A former Marine, Berry was described as responsible and a family man, studious and trusting. Too trusting, one said.

Family members declined to elaborate on why Berry teamed up with James and Brown to steal guns from the National Guard Armory at Durant.

But the three were indicted on federal charges of theft of government property and all admitted to participating in the crime after their arrests.

James and Brown believed Berry was responsible for them getting caught, and they schemed to beat him up, according to accounts from the attorney general's office.

Then they met Samuel Van Woudenberg, a Tulsan who hatched the idea of killing Berry.

About 4:30 a.m. on Feb. 6, 1983, Brown coaxed Berry into a card game. While they played, James approached Berry from behind and wrapped a wire around his neck and strangled him.

Brown held Berry's feet and put his hand over Berry's mouth while James pulled on the wire.

Van Woudenberg warned James and Brown that someone was coming. James dragged Berry into a cell and continued to strangle him as he held Berry's head in his lap.

After Berry died, the three tried to hang him by a wire in the shower. But the body fell and they managed to tie him up with a towel.

James' overalls were covered in blood and he ripped them up and flushed them down a toilet with the wire, which was later retrieved by a plumber. James also threatened other witnesses in jail to shut them up.

The state found three aggravating circumstances that warranted death: the killing happened while James was imprisoned on a felony conviction, he would likely have been a continuing threat to society and the murder was cruel, atrocious or heinous.

Van Woudenberg is on death row, but his sentence is being reviewed. A competency hearing is set for June 8 in McAlester, Attorney General Drew Edmondson said.

Brown pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and received 35 years in prison because he was willing to testify against James and Van Woudenberg.

Berry's family members said they spent the past 18 years thinking about what happened that morning.

``It doesn't go away,'' one relative said.

Execution dates have been set for three other inmates, including Vincent Allen Johnson on May 29 for a 1991 Pittsburg County murder and Gerardo Valdez on June 19 for a 1989 murder in his Minco home.

A July 17 execution date was set Tuesday for Jerald Wayne Harjo.