EL RENO — Admitted murderer Joshua Steven Durcho was sentenced Friday to life in prison without the possibility of parole after he apologized for choking to death his girlfriend and her four young children.
In a deal that had the support of the victims' family members, prosecutors dropped their request for the death penalty in the 2009 case.
“The death penalty would not have made me feel any better,” said Rhonda Rust, stepmother of the murdered woman, Summer Rust, 25. “I thank God we did not have to go through a trial.”
Jury selection for the trial was to have begun Monday.
Durcho, 29, pleaded guilty to five counts of first-degree murder and agreed to serve five consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole. Durcho also agreed he would not appeal and he would never seek a pardon or sentence commutation. He wept in court as he listened to statements from relatives of his victims.
He met privately with his victims' families before his sentencing. He apologized in the private meeting but did not offer any explanation for his actions, according to those who were there.
“It was extremely emotional. It was very, very emotional,” defense attorney John Echols said of the meeting.
“He told them he was responsible for these crimes and he was sorry. ... A lot of it was for them to talk to him ... and express to him how much pain he caused. ... I can tell you he told the family members that he doesn't have any recollection of anything after the first awful moments.”
Prosecutors alleged Durcho strangled his girlfriend in her El Reno apartment in January 2009 when she threatened to call police on him. Prosecutors said he had vowed he would never go back to prison. Durcho had been to prison in the past for marijuana possession.
Prosecutors allege he methodically strangled Rust's three daughters, Kirsten Rust, 7, Autumn Rust, 7, and Evynn Garas, 3, and her son, Teagin Rust, 4, to eliminate them as witnesses. Prosecutors also allege he sexually abused Kirsten.
The victims' bodies were found Jan. 12, 2009, in the apartment. The children's bodies had been stacked in a bathtub partially filled with water. Durcho was arrested after wrecking his girlfriend's car in Texas.
He admitted to Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation agents after his arrest that he had a fight with his girlfriend. He told the agents he blacked out with his hands around her neck.
He told his half-brother, Dallas Due, that he choked his girlfriend when she picked up the phone to call police in an effort to get him to leave, according to testimony at a hearing in June.
In court Friday, he admitted that he choked to death his girlfriend and the children. He said, “God bless you,” when Rhonda Rust said she was praying for him.
Canadian County District Judge Gary E. Miller ruled the plea agreement was fair.
After the sentencing, Evynn's grandmother, Crystal Franklin, of Oklahoma City, told reporters: “Justice is served as far as I'm concerned. ... The death penalty is not automatic. ... Do I want to have to come to court every time he appealed? No. That's why I personally agree with what has happened today. I want it done so I could get on and try to pick up the pieces that I can.”
Critical of the deal was Canadian County Sheriff Randall R. Edwards.
“I don't believe a crime so heinous as the one Durcho is accused of committing should be pled out,” the sheriff said. “There is overwhelming evidence that shows he committed this horrific act and then ran like the coward he is. I believe he had ought to stand before a jury of his peers so at least if he is found guilty, the death penalty will be, should be, an option.”
Canadian County District Attorney Mike Fields told reporters the victims' relatives he spoke to unanimously supported the plea agreement.
“The sentence today does three things,” he said. “First and foremost, it honors the wishes of the victims' families. Secondly, it guarantees that Mr. Durcho will spend the remainder of his life in prison. And, third, it provides a definite and certain ending to an important aspect of this tragedy and that is the court case.”
Complicating the case was that defense attorneys contended Durcho was ineligible for the death penalty because of mental retardation. Durcho scored 72 on two IQ tests given since his arrest.
The judge ruled in August that Durcho is not mentally retarded. Defense attorneys, though, could have raised their claim again to the jury if Durcho had been convicted.
The mental issue also would have been a key part of the appeal if jurors had chosen death sentences.