A man who was on death row for more than 30 years after being convicted in the 1983 strangulation death of a Muskogee County Jail inmate has died, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections confirmed Tuesday afternoon.
DOC public information officer Alex Gerszewski told the Tulsa World that Sammy Van Woudenberg, 65, died of natural causes March 5.
Van Woudenberg was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1983 death of Durant resident Mark Berry, who was 25 when he was strangled in the Muskogee County Jail.
A roster of current death row inmates maintained by the DOC appears to indicate Van Woudenberg, at 32 years and 56 days, had been on death row the longest at the time he died.
Gerszewski said prison staff discovered he was dead while delivering his evening meal to his cell at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.
Tulsa World archives indicate Van Woudenberg had been found incompetent to be executed in 1994, and that he had been sent at that time to a unit for prisoners with special needs to receive psychiatric care. A judge said his death sentence could be carried out if his mental health improved, according to documents from the Pittsburg County case.
An attorney told the World in 2001 that Van Woudenberg “intermittently” took medication to control schizophrenia but said he was “poorly compliant” on medication.
Van Woudenberg, records show, was serving a life sentence for a 1973 Tulsa County murder when he escaped from Mack Alford Correctional Center in Stringtown in October 1982 and was caught in Muskogee County a month later. Documents from Van Woudenberg’s appeal state he talked to two federal inmates — who were discussing beating up Berry — and told them to strangle him, then hang him to make the death appear to be a suicide.
Van Woudenberg provided a wire from a broom and showed the men how to use it to strangle Berry, according to testimony from the others involved in the attack. Inmate Dennis Brown testified that he got Berry to play cards with him early on Feb. 6, 1983, and that fellow inmate Terrance James walked up behind him, wrapped the wire around his neck and strangled him.
Van Woudenberg, according to that testimony, helped the other men hang Berry’s body in a shower stall. Brown testified that Van Woudenberg kept watch while he and James killed Berry.
A Feb. 9, 1983, Tulsa World article states a Muskogee police detective reported that Brown and James believed Berry turned in evidence against them to the state. All were awaiting sentencing after being convicted of breaking into a National Guard armory near Durant, according to the article.
Van Woudenberg was at the jail to await prosecution on a federal charge of kidnapping an Atoka County couple. In a Feb. 11, 1987, World article, prosecutors were reported as telling a judge that Van Woudenberg kidnapped the couple and drove them to Texas before being caught in Muskogee County.
Van Woudenberg was previously convicted of killing Oscar Louis Cates during a party in Tulsa in April 1973, according to an Aug. 17 World story from that year. Witnesses said Van Woudenberg wanted to rob Cates because Cates had been “flashing $20s,” but that his revolver fired while he was struggling with another man in attempts to stop that man from physically assaulting Cates.
Court records show the last action in Van Woudenberg’s attempts to appeal his death sentence occurred in 2003, when the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals denied his request for post-conviction relief.
James was also sentenced to death in 1985 for his part in the crime and was executed by lethal injection on May 22, 2001. Brown pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 35 years in prison.