Jury calls for death sentence in beheading
NORMAN — A jury Thursday agreed on a death sentence for murderer Alton Alexander Nolen in a beheading case — a verdict that brought some closure to the family of the victim.
“It feels like all of the emotions that you hold in for three years are finally able to break free,” said Kelli Beranek, daughter of murder victim Colleen Hufford.
“Now … we can all move on,” she said. “We can all start remembering her as a person instead of her in this situation.”
Nolen, 33, of Moore had no reaction as the judge read the verdict, even though he has said repeatedly since his arrest that was the punishment he wanted because of his religious beliefs.
He kept his head down, never looking up. He also kept his eyes and ears covered with his orange jail shirt by pulling it up with his hands from the inside.
Formal sentencing is set for Dec. 15. An appeal is automatic.
Nolen admitted to police and the FBI that he beheaded one co-worker with a kitchen knife and tried to behead another co-worker after being suspended from a food plant in Moore on Sept. 25, 2014. The Muslim convert said in his confession that he felt oppressed and took action in service to the will of Allah.
He first attacked Hufford, 54, grabbing her from behind as she talked to a supervisor at Vaughan Foods. “Die, b----, die,” he said as he sawed at her neck, according to testimony. He fought off three men who tried to stop him.
He then attacked Traci Johnson, a new worker at the plant, who had made the complaint about his racial remarks that led to his suspension. She survived when the plant's then-chief operating officer interrupted the attack and shot Nolen.
“Thank heavens it's over,” Johnson, 46, of Oklahoma City said after the verdict Thursday. “I don't have to worry about him anymore. I can rest in peace. Colleen can rest in peace.”
Jurors reached their verdict on punishment for the murder in less than three hours. Their choices were life in prison, life in prison without the possibility of parole and death.
“It was hard,” jury foreman Brian Monroe said of the unanimous decision for a death sentence. “It just, it goes against some people's morals. And, you know, you got to, got to weigh everything out, talk it out, talk it over. As horrible as it was, yep.
“We had to work at it,” the foreman told The Oklahoman. “That's all I'll say. We had to work at it.”
Cleveland County District Attorney Greg Mashburn thanked jurors who were in trial for five weeks.
Jurors learned during the trial that Nolen said to psychologists and in court that he wanted to be executed because of his religious beliefs. Jurors also learned he told the FBI he had no regrets and knew he was going to heaven.
In an impassioned closing argument Thursday morning, Mashburn told jurors, “He wants the death penalty. Give him what he wants.”
The district attorney then went further, saying that Nolen wanted the death penalty “because he thinks something good is waiting for him on the other side. Give it to him, and let him find out.”
The prosecutor showed jury photos of Hufford as she looked in life and then photos of her body and head.
Prosecutors contended Nolen would be violent again, “in a heartbeat,” and reminded jurors that he had caused disturbances last year in jail and in April inside the courtroom.
Jurors on Wednesday saw two videos of the altercations at the jail.
Defense attorneys asked jurors to show mercy. They argued Nolen has a mental illness, lower intellectual functioning and a religious preoccupation that skewed his thinking.
“You don't need a doctor to tell you something's wrong with him,” defense attorney Shea Smith said, pointing at Nolen. “He's clearly got something mentally wrong.”
Defense attorneys also suggested other reasons to jurors to spare Nolen's life, including that he was kind to animals as a boy.
Nolen never looked up during the arguments. He sat as he has for weeks, putting his hands inside his jail top and pressing the cloth against his ears.
Jurors on Sept. 29 found Nolen guilty of first-degree murder and five assault offenses. In reaching their guilty verdict, jurors rejected an insanity defense.
Jurors on Tuesday rejected another defense claim — that Nolen was ineligible for the death penalty because of mental retardation.
With that verdict, jurors unanimously found Nolen is not mentally retarded. The term is still found in Oklahoma law even though it is considered offensive in society.
Jurors already had decided his punishment for the assaults. They chose life terms in prison on three of the assault convictions. They agreed he should serve 55 years in prison and 75 years in prison on the others.
Nolen actually pleaded guilty last year to firstdegree murder and two of the assault offenses. District Judge Lori Walkley had been prepared to decide his punishment herself on those crimes, after she resolved questions about his mental capacity.
Once she did resolve those issues, in April, Nolen would not say if he still stood by his 2016 guilty plea. The judge then called off a sentencing and ordered the jury trial instead.