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Eternal fate of son’s killer prompted mother’s outreach

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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  • Bob Nigh