Oklahoma Wtch

Theresa Witcher (left) and Deb Malcom join Fr. Bryan Brooks in a prayer vigil on Oct. 20 during the execution of Benjamin Cole at Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.

OKLAHOMA CITY — Bryan Brooks was a teenager, just like them. In the summer of 1978, he was on break from Putnam City West High School, working with his father at the family’s mechanic shop.

They were working at a steakhouse 14 miles from Brooks’ school. One Sunday in July, an armed man looking for money marched the four teens — David Lindsey, David Salsman, Terri Horst and Anthony Tew — and two coworkers into the restaurant’s freezer and executed them one by one.

When Brooks became Fr. Bryan Brooks, another Catholic priest invited him to a vigil in McAlester to be held as the state exacted retribution on the killer of six Sirloin Stockade employees and three others.

Brooks still remembers how a large crowd outside of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary hugged and cheered at 12:30 a.m. on July 1, 1995, when the condemned drew his final breath.

Brooks stood near the crowd, head bowed, quietly praying for Roger Dale Stafford.

“Have mercy on your son who is about to return to you. May this our prayer made in faith assist him, relieve his struggle in body and spirit, forgive all his sins, and strengthen him with your loving embrace.”

Brooks, pastor at the Church of Saint of Benedict in Broken Arrow, has returned to the state penitentiary to recite that prayer 113 times — each representing a man or woman executed by the state of Oklahoma.

Penciled into a wrinkled leather calendar on Brooks’ desk are another 22 executions the state has planned in the next two years.

He refuses to allow those deaths to go unnoticed. Brooks was in McAlester again at 10:24 a.m. Thursday when fewer than a dozen people gathered outside the prison as the state killed Richard Fairchild by lethal injection. Fairchild was sentenced to die for beating his girlfriend’s 3-year-old son to death.

Brooks said his faith, his training and his mentor taught him that all lives are sacred, even those who have taken the lives of others.

“The executions are carried out in a way that undermines the dignity of life,” Brooks said. “What’s being done is more of an act of vengeance than an act of justice and that’s counter to the gospel of life and as a priest, I’m called to be a witness to that.”

Sometimes the 60-year-old priest paces and prays alone in front of a barricade on North West Street as the condemned takes his last breaths in the execution chamber. On rare occasions, he’s surrounded by crowds of activists striving to make their voices heard, some for and others against the death penalty. Usually, he’s joined by a parishioner or two and a couple members of the clergy while nearby one or two opponents of the death penalty hold up a five-foot “thou shalt not kill” banner and provide updates through a livestream video.

Brooks sat in the witness room with only a pane of glass between him and the condemned four times as the state carried out capital punishment, a sentence sought by prosecutors and handed down by judge or jury.

Each time the state takes an inmate’s life, Brooks drives two hours to the southeastern Oklahoma prison known as Big Mac. In 27 years, he has missed one execution — to be with his dying father.

Fr. Donald Brooks, no relation, became the state penitentiary chaplain in the 1960s and helped negotiate an end to the 1973 McAlester prison riot that left three inmates dead, more than 20 people injured and 24 buildings destroyed. Donald Brooks was trusted by prisoners and guards, and became known in Catholic and criminal justice circles for the prayer vigils he organized every time an inmate was put to death.

When his mentor fell ill and could no longer travel to McAlester, Bryan Brooks took over.

“I really don’t like doing this. God knows there are a lot of other things to do, to plan,” Brooks said. “But this is just where I’m supposed to be and I know that without a doubt.”

As that crowd celebrated Stafford’s death in 1995, Brooks said his personal calling became clear: Give everyone a chance to repent, to ask for forgiveness and salvation — no matter what they’ve done.

“These lives are taken by violence and we’re gonna take another person’s life by violence and that’s as serious as it gets,” Brooks said.

He remembers his second trip to McAlester for Robert Brecheen’s execution on August 11, 1995. He prayed as an ambulance transported Brecheen to the hospital after the condemned tried to commit suicide by overdosing on medication he had been hoarding. Doctors saved a life the state took hours later as retribution for shooting an Ardmore woman in the head as he robbed her home.

Brooks remembers sitting in the front row of the witness room for the first time, watching George K. Wallace being strapped to the execution table. Brooks was so nervous as the doctor injected life-ending drugs into Wallace on August 10, 2000, that he couldn’t remember the “Our Father,” one of the most well-known and frequently recited prayers in the New Testament.

He remembers Mark Fowler’s death better than most. Fowler was the nephew of a priest he knew from seminary. Brooks sat next to Fowler’s father in the gallery on Jan. 23, 2001, as they watched his son die for his role in a triple homicide at an Edmond grocery store. Fowler admitted to the robbery but denied killing anyone.

He remembers Jay Neill as the last execution he would witness. As he watched Neill die on Dec. 12, 2002, for murdering four people during a Geronimo bank robbery, Brooks knew the physical, emotional and spiritual toll of these killings had become too much.

“I didn’t exactly make it known that I didn’t want to do that but I haven’t been asked again since,” he said.

He remembers Clayton Lockett as the inmate whose death called into question the state’s execution protocols. As Brooks prayed outside, Lockett writhed and clenched his teeth in pain on the execution table after the doctor administered an unapproved drug.

Brooks paid close attention to the news that followed. An investigation into the state’s execution procedure and legal challenges that created a de facto moratorium. From February 2015 to September 2021, Brooks avoided McAlester. No death-row inmates’ lives were taken by the state.

Brooks took up gardening and oversaw the building of the adoration chapel at St. Benedict.

In that small chapel on the church’s south end, Brooks has prayed each morning since October 28, 2021, when the state resumed executions by taking the life of John Grant for killing a prison worker in the kitchen of the Dick Conner Correctional Facility in Hominy.

When he is not in McAlester, Brooks leads daily and Sunday mass, visits sick parishioners, counsels engaged couples and hears confessions of the 1,250-member parish. He oversees church staff, preaches at funerals, guides and supports the priests of eastern Oklahoma as the vicar of priests and serves on numerous Catholic boards and committees. He stacks and puts away chairs after church events and unclogs toilets.

Brooks has presided over funerals of murder victims and comforted their grief-stricken families.

On his lengthy to-do list is research for upcoming executions. He sends emails to hundreds of priests, deacons, seminary students and others who have expressed interest, including detailed summaries of the crime, names and ages of the victims, updates on appeals and commutation hearings and the date and time for the vigil.

On Oct. 20, when the state executed Benjamin Cole for murdering his 9-month-old daughter, Brooks greeted prison guards stationed at the barricade, familiar protesters and news reporters as he took his spot on the street in front of the prison.

Brooks prayed for the victims and their families, for the corrections officers and the doctor administering the life-ending drugs, and for the inmate before and after death.

“All powerful and merciful God, we commend to you Benjamin Cole, your servant. In your mercy and love, blot out the sins he has committed through human weakness. In this world, he has died. Let him live with you forever.”

This prayer reserved for after death is on page 19 of a stapled booklet of prayers, verses and hymns that Brooks provides to anyone who wants to join in. The pages are kept in shiny, navy blue folders creased and worn from years of use.

Inside, above the pockets, are rows of labels that serve as reminders to those in prayer and a register of the dead — those avenged by capital punishment and those who are victims of it.

Victim: Rhonda Kay Timmons. To be executed: Robert “Randy” Clayton.

Victim: Earnestine Jones. To be executed: Eddie Trice.

Victim: Gloria Leathers. To be Executed: Wanda Jean Allen.

There are at least a dozen stickers inside each folder, not all of them the same.

Among the pages is the Catholic Church’s opposition to capital punishment. The teaching is read aloud during execution vigils. Brooks occasionally includes it in his sermons. Once while serving a parish in Okmulgee, a parishioner stood up at the end of mass and sternly pronounced that he knew a victim whose killer had been executed.

“I had just stepped on a land mine because I was not thinking there are people in the pews here every Sunday that have been touched by violence,” Brooks said. “And you’ve got to be bringing Christ to that pain as much as you are going to the prison.”

His parishioners have included a district attorney and a judge who had sentenced people to death.

“In talking with them I realized, OK, let’s bring some humility to this,” Brooks said. “Let’s kind of throttle back a little bit.”

Though his language has softened, Brooks’ message is unchanged. So is Oklahoma’s support for the death penalty.

‘The long game’

Two-thirds of voters approved a 2016 state question protecting capital punishment in the Oklahoma Constitution.

A 2021 survey found that 64% of Oklahomans favor the death penalty.

Brooks knows that promoting abolition puts him in the minority. He’s reminded every time an inmate loses an appeal or the Pardon and Parole Board denies commutation.

He’s reminded every time the state kills on his behalf.

Brooks finds encouragement in the small but significant changes he’s seen since Stafford’s execution.

Pope Francis’ hardened stance against capital punishment. Publicity over cases like Julius Jones and Richard Glossip highlighting flaws in the criminal justice system. Conversations with parishioners who have experienced a change of heart.

“I have seen things change. Just because there are not 200 people out here doesn’t mean that people have not been moved to rethink, why are we doing this?” Brooks said. “We have long ways to go, but Jesus plays the long game.”

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