An Oklahoma man accused of strangling his ex-girlfriend and her four young children pleaded guilty to five counts of first-degree murder Friday during an emotional hearing, thus avoiding a death sentence.
Joshua Durcho sobbed repeatedly as relatives of the five victims described how the killings have affected them. He was sentenced to five consecutive life prison sentences without parole in a plea agreement with prosecutors, who had planned to seek the death penalty at a trial that was set to begin Monday.
The victims' family members agreed to the plea deal.
"The death penalty wouldn't have made me feel any better than him being locked up forever," said Rhonda Rust, stepmother of Summer Rust, the woman who was killed. "I thank God we didn't have to go through a trial."
Durcho, 29, was charged with first-degree murder for the January 2009 deaths of 25-year-old Summer Rust and her children – 3-year-old Evynn Garas, 4-year-old Teagin Rust and 7-year-old daughters Kirsten and Autumn Rust – in the family's El Reno apartment. Autopsies showed Rust and her children died from "ligature strangulation," meaning they were strangled with something that left marks on their necks.
Prosecutors said Durcho also sexually abused the 7-year-old girls.
Durcho pleaded guilty to each murder count, agreeing with details of the killings that Canadian County District Judge Gary Miller read to him from the plea agreement.
"Yes, sir," Durcho said, after the judge asked if he had choked Summer Rust to death followed by her four children.
Rhonda Rust said the victims must have been terrified. "The horror they must have endured," she said.
She and other relatives read emotional statements, leading Durcho to weep himself.
"I never got to hear what she wanted to be when she grew up," said Crystal Franklin, the grandmother of 3-year-old Evynn. "This is a closure to part of my life. But I have the rest of my life to remember this terrible tragedy."
At one point, she spoke directly to Durcho and said, "I do forgive you and may God be with you."
John Echols, one of the defense attorneys, said Durcho met privately with family members of the victims before the hearing. He said Durcho does not remember much of what happened the day of the killings, but apologized to the relatives.
District Attorney Mike Fields said the plea agreement honors the wishes of the victims' relatives and guarantees that Durcho will spend the rest of his life in prison. In pleading guilty, Durcho agreed not to appeal his conviction and gave up all pardon, parole and commutation rights.
Last month, Dr. Shawn Roberson, a forensic psychologist with the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, testified that Durcho's mental functioning was "at the low borderline range." Nonetheless, Miller rejected claims that Durcho is mentally disabled and ineligible for the death penalty.
Oklahoma law bars death sentences if a defendant meets the state definition of mental retardation, which includes an IQ of 70 or below and "significant limitations in adaptive functioning," the real-life communications, self-care and work and social skills people need to live independently and function safely and appropriately. In addition, the onset of mental retardation must occur before the age of 18.
Roberson said Durcho has been administered four IQ tests since he was 11 years old and scored between 72 and 78 on the tests. The most recent tests were administered in 2009 and 2010, and Durcho scored 72 on both.